City ethics update; campaign limit was supposed to help the little guy | Arkansas Blog

City ethics update; campaign limit was supposed to help the little guy

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Some more history on the Little Rock city ordinance that limits candidates for mayor and City Board to raising campaign funds to five months before the November 2018 election.

A complaint has been filed against mayoral candidate Warwick Sabin, who's raising money through an exploratory committee, which is afforded a longer time limit for raising money under general state ethics law establishing exploratory committees, unmentioned in the city statute. He says it's legal and plans to turn over money raised to his campaign when the law allows.

I noted yesterday that the short time window favors incumbents, particularly for the expensive city-wide races for mayor and three at-large city directors.

Neil Sealy of Arkansas Communication Organizations reminds me, however, of the roots of the ordinance 20 years ago.

In 1996, state voters approved an initiated ethics act. Among other provisions, it enabled cities to pass their own ethics laws. The Little Rock New Party, a progressive group, backed an ordinance approved by the city board in 1997 that put a limit on fund-raising. "Developers were holding fundraising events for city directors in close proximity to votes on zoning ordinances," Sealy recalls.

The original ordinance, he noted, required city candidates to give excess campaign funds back to donors or to non-profits. Under state campaign finance law, successful candidates are able to retain a carryover equal to their annual salary. Mayor Mark Stodola, who makes $160,000, is carrying over $78,000 for his race next year.

So I have this thought, which perhaps will be considered as City Attorney Tom Carpenter reviews the changes in ethics laws since 1997 and the pending complaint against Sabin: If the state provision for exploratory committees does NOT override the city ordinance and does NOT allow Sabin to use the ruse he's employing to build a campaign treasury, does state law override the city ordinance as to carryover funds?

The various efforts to impose some restrictions on spending at both the city and state level years ago — not to mention the recent constitutional amendment promptly riddled with holes by lawmakers and the corporate community — illustrate the old truth: Money, like water, will always find an outlet.

Sabin and Stodola both could make a statement by honoring the spirit of the 1997 ordinance — Sabin by suspending fund-raising until July 1, 2018 and Stodola by turning over his surplus, as the 1997 ordinance directed, to the city, a 501c3 nonprofit or his contributors.

Sealy provided a newspaper clip of news coverage at the time. Noted: One of the leading advocates was then-City Director Henry Hodges, long a good government champion as director and later state representative. He now does lobbying work for Stephens Inc. The financial colossus and its leaders have been known to contribute a bit to political races now and again. All according to the rules, of course.


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