Ethics Review Board Not There Yet

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Edmond Ortiz for the Rivard Report

City Councilman John Courage (D9) explains his proposed city campaign finance code revision to the Ethics Review Board.

The City’s Ethics Review Board (ERB) voted Tuesday that a panel of its members further examine proposed revisions to the City’s campaign finance code.

The City Council Governance Committee is expected to meet Sept. 20 to consider the ERB’s recommendations on changes to the campaign finance and ethics codes.

Board members briefly discussed finalizing verbiage for one potential revision directed at campaign contributions from company owners, top executives, and board members bidding on high-profile City contracts. The same rule would apply to subcontractors of that company.

But the board is far from reaching a consensus on another revision. In a Council Consideration Request (CCR), Councilman John Courage (D9) proposed that municipal candidates be required to report the job title and employer of any individual who contributes more than $100 to their campaign.

Courage said this change to the campaign finance code would bolster the City’s efforts to foster greater transparency.

The proposed rule, Courage added, could help candidates running for City office, as well as their campaign contributors, ensure they are not violating local campaign finance laws.

“The reason that this [proposal] exists is for full disclosure,” Courage told board members Tuesday.

Candidates for statewide and legislative office are currently required to submit contributors’ main profession and their employer’s name for total contributions of $500 or more during a reporting period. Federal election laws have a similar requirement.

Having run for Congress and the State Legislature in the past, Courage said he is used to reporting such information on specific campaign donors.

He added that most contributions to a candidate running for City office would not seem suspicious, but that several from an individual, business, or organization could raise red flags with watchdogs on the lookout for special interest ties.

“Understanding and disclosing where that money comes from is critical,” Courage said. “I think it’s a good practice for all of the City Council [members] to do the same.”

But several ERB members voiced concern that such a measure, if approved, could pose a risk to people’s right to privacy when it comes to donating money to a municipal campaign.

Some board members said certain prospective contributors should not have to worry about how the City or anyone else perceives their job title or business affiliation when donating to a campaign.

“We’re wondering, is the ethics code higher than constitutional law or is constitutional law higher than the ethics code,” board member Ruben De Leon said.

Board member Linda Jackson suggested raising the amount for the contribution reporting threshold to $500. Member Magdalena Alvarado said she’s all for government transparency, but greater consideration must be given to the campaign donor whose professional information could be reported.

“It’s a chilling effect at the local level,” Alvarado added. “I think it compromises people in a lot of ways.”

Member Wade Shelton sought to understand Courage’s perspective to an extent, saying individuals who tend to make significant campaign contributions in all or most election cycles are likely already “conditioned” to follow state and federal election laws. Therefore, he added, it would not be hard for such donors to acclimate to a new reporting rule for City elections.

Member Melanie Castillo asked about the City staff’s capacity to compile that type of specific campaign contributor information and follow up on instances in which a donor appears in violation of City code.

“We can pull that information quickly, but what would we do with it?” City Auditor Kevin Barthold rhetorically asked.

Barthold added that his staff is constantly on the lookout for campaign finance-related issues that could raise a red flag.

Member Ron Van Kirk said Courage’s proposal may be well-intended, but it seems to be a solution to a problem that does not exist on a large scale.

The ERB voted unanimously to return Courage’s CCR to a panel-level discussion.

“We do need a little more research time,” Board Chairwoman Adriana Garcia said.

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