Did City Council Ambush True Campaign Finance Reform?

After a little hemming and hawing, Cincinnati City Council last week passed its first campaign finance reform law in years. But will the new law, which deals only with information disclosure, mean t

Mar 22, 2001 at 2:06 pm

After a little hemming and hawing, Cincinnati City Council last week passed its first campaign finance reform law in years. But will the new law, which deals only with information disclosure, mean the death of a comprehensive reform package backed by a coalition of citizen groups?

City Councilman Pat DeWine, the engineer of the new law, based it on existing state and federal laws requiring candidates reveal the employer and occupation of their donors. The city ordinance applies to anyone giving $200 or more.

DeWine's law also closes a longstanding loophole. Until now, candidates didn't have to report contributions accepted within 19 days of the election until about a month after the election was over. Candidates also didn't report any election-year contributions until September.

"I think that's a real opportunity for abuse," DeWine says.

Under the new law, which passed 7-1 March 14, candidates must file financial reports 120 days before and 60 days before the election. They must also report within two business days any contribution of $1,000 or more received during the final 19 days of the campaign.

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

The city's Office of Contract Compliance and Administrative Hearings and the Hamilton County Board of Elections will collect the records, which will be published on a city Web site.

Only Councilman Chris Monzel voted against the law, but it took some debate to win passage.

Jeff Cramerding, executive director of the Charter Committee, told council the law is a no-brainer.

"DeWine has thrown you an election-year softball," Cramerding said. "I hope you hit it out of the park."

Councilman John Cranley said the DeWine ordinance is a matter of good government. "I think this goes a long way to showing we have nothing to hide," Cranley said.

But Councilman Paul Booth said the two-day reporting deadline for $1,000 contributions near election day could lead to confusion and errors, casting suspicion on candidates only guilty of poor bookkeeping.

Like Booth, Monzel was concerned that the law was too much work, especially for a new candidate. DeWine scolded other council members, calling some of their concerns "silly" and self-centered.

"I hear people talking and talking about what's going to be easier for the politicians," DeWine said, adding that council is responsible for a $1.8 billion biannual budget and 7,000 employees. "Someone running for council ought to be able to figure out how to do it," DeWine says.

But what about the city charter amendment backed by the Fair Elections Coalition? If voters pass the charter amendment — which could reach the ballot in November — candidates who agree to only spend three times a councilmember's salary would receive up to $2 in public funds for every $1 raised by a campaign, with a maximum public funding of about $100,000 for council candidates and about $200,000 for mayoral candidates (see "Buying Back Council," issue of Jan. 4-10).

The amendment would create the Cincinnati Elections Commission and give it subpoena powers to watch campaigns and fine violators, and includes disclosure requirements similar to DeWine's law.

But does DeWine's disclosure law steal enough momentum from the charter amendment to derail it? Bill Woods, co-chair of the Fair Elections Coalition, doesn't want to speculate.

"I'm not sure whether it makes it more difficult or not (to pass it)," says Woods, who generally supported DeWine's proposal.

So far the group has collected about half of the 6,800 signatures needed to put the proposal on the ballot. But Woods says polls indicate the public is ready for a meaningful change in the way campaigns work.

"I think it's in the wind," he says.

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively killed the city's campaign spending limits, refusing to hear a city-backed appeal of a lawsuit calling them unconstitutional. Since 1976, the court has generally equated campaign spending with free speech.

The old city law, passed by voters in 1994 but only in effect for the 1997 election, limited spending to three times a council member's or mayor's salary. It helped cut campaign spending from a record $2.41 million for 17 candidates in 1995 to $2.07 million for 18 candidates in 1997.

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