News: Complex Campaigns

Rules for council races keep changing -- and more to come

Sean Hughes/

Getting elected to Cincinnati City Council becomes more complicated every year. This year's council candidates will have to deal with the most thorough — and perhaps most confusing — set of campaign finance requirements so far.

In addition voters, having elected their first strong mayor in 2001, might decide on an even bigger change in the way city council campaigns are run: replacing citywide elections with election by districts.

The puzzle of campaign rules
Someday someone will put together a charter amendment making the election system easier to follow. Until then, candidates must deal with three layers of requirements.

In 2001, as in past years, council candidates had to file five periodic campaign reports required by state law. But also that year for the first time they had to file financial reports 120 days and 60 days before the election. They also had to disclose within two business days any contribution of $1,000 or more received during the final 19 days of the campaign and disclose every donor's occupation and employer.

Candidates failing to meet the requirements could be fined $100 a day or a maximum of $2,500.

Council approved these rules, proposed by Councilman Pat DeWine, in March 2001, imitating requirements of campaign finance laws for state offices.

Then there are the remnants of the charter amendment voters passed in 2001, which take effect this year.

The new rules cap contributions at $1,000 for individuals, $2,500 for political action committees (PACs) and $10,000 for political parties for the primary and general elections.

Candidates, parties and PACs must also file a 60-day report with the Hamilton County Board of Elections and the Cincinnati Elections Commission.

Still following this?

If a candidate received an election-long total of $500 or more from one source within 20 days of the election, he must report it to the commission and the board of elections within five days.

If a candidate spends $1,000, it must be reported within 10 days. If it happens within 30 days of the election, it must be reported in 48 hours. Within seven days of the election, it must be reported in 24 hours.

It's almost enough to make candidates swear off money altogether.

The 2001 charter amendment also included public financing of city council campaigns, but last fall voters repealed the public funding before it ever had a chance to begin.

The elections commission created by the 2001 charter amendment is still in existence, but it's not quite thriving. Two positions on the five-person commission are vacant. The commission is preparing an electronic filing system and debating whether to create a searchable electronic database of campaign donations.

But that won't be easy. During budget hearings last month DeWine successfully proposed cutting all but $10,000 of the commission's $100,000 annual budget. That left it with enough for a computer but possibly not for labor to sort through the impending mountain of paperwork.

DeWine couldn't be reached for comment.

The last-minute budget cut has commission member Morris Passer peeved. Who's going to do the document sorting and database work?

"I don't think very much thought was given to our job and what our needs are," says Passer, a retired chief financial officer.

Fellow member Phil Smith, a lawyer, is less concerned.

"We'll take a look at it ... but I'm optimistic we can do it for $10,000, or at least something close to it," he says.

District races could be next
This could be the third year in a row Cincinnati voters decide on a charter amendment. This time it's a proposal to replace the nine citywide council races in favor of seven district races and three at-large contests.

The proposal is about 75 percent complete but could change, according to Emanuel Marshall, a College Hill Republican who wrote the plan with Price Hill Democrat Don Driehaus. Both are financial advisors.

Marshall says he and Driehaus tried to make sure the proposed districts are racially balanced. The proposed districts are:

1) Downtown, West End, Clifton, Clifton Heights, Corryville, University Heights, Queensgate, Over-the-Rhine;

2) Avondale, Walnut Hills, Evanston;

3) Hyde Park, Mount Lookout, Mount Adams, Mount Washington, California, East End, half of Oakley;

4) Bond Hill, Roselawn, Pleasant Ridge, Kennedy Heights, Madisonville, half of Oakley;

5) College Hill, Mount Airy, Winton Place, Hartwell, Carthage, Winton Terrace, South Cumminsville, Northside;

6) Westwood, Fairmount, Camp Washington, Fay Apartments; and

7) Price Hill, Covedale, Sedamsville, Riverside, Saylor Park.

District candidates would have to live in their district at least two years before filing to run. They would face primary elections in September and serve two-year terms. The at-large winners would serve four-year terms and chair the finance, inter-governmental and law and public safety committees.

Marshall says the plan might be introduced to council within a couple of weeks.

Council could vote to put it on the ballot for November, but it's more likely Marshall and Driehaus will have to gather the 9,250 signatures required to get the proposal on the ballot.

The plan is already attracting opposition. Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Lookout) says he'll work to repeal any district plan that includes at-large candidates. Brinkman was a chief supporter of the effort to repeal public funding for city council campaigns.

Brinkman prefers a plan with 15 council members and 15 districts. He's been talking with fellow members of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) about trying to put such a proposal on the ballot in 2004.

"We're definitely going to do it," Brinkman says.

The sticking point is who draws the districts after every census, according to Brinkman. The wrong system could lead to one party or demographic trying to monopolize the system, he says.

If COAST or Brinkman run that ballot compaign, will voters be able to find out who's financing it?

In 2001, No Taxes for Council Campaigns — run by COAST members — raised about $70,000 after Oct. 15. That meant they didn't have to disclose their contributors before the election. Most of COAST's money was from large donors, including $20,000 from the Republican Party and $10,000 from Fifth/Third Bank. Voters didn't get the information until after a mid-December filing. Committee leaders said they'd only had promises of money before Oct. 15 — not the actual checks.

Last year Brinkman and other COAST members helped organize Yes On 8, a PAC that supported repeal of public financing of campaigns. Yes on 8 — like No Taxes for Council Campaigns — didn't reveal its contributions until after the election. The new PAC had a total of $30,050, including $15,000 from Carl Lindner.

Brinkman says he is 100 percent for disclosure.

Then why not just reveal his contributors?

"It's not required by law, so it's not a priority," Brinkman says. "Because we didn't have to do it, nobody did it." ©