I asked Mayor Mark Stodola for a comment yesterday after the city sued his two mayoral challengers, Warwick Sabin and Frank Scott Jr., for raising money for the race through exploratory committees while a city ordinance nominally prevents fund-raising for city races until June 1.
That same ordinance also prohibits city candidates from carrying over money from past races. Stodola has $78,000 on hand from an unchallenged 2014 race and I asked him if he intended to use it for this year’s campaign.
I intend to follow the law and abide and respect the law. I have given carry over money to charitable causes and have returned contributions to all who have requested. I have asked for opinions on the proper handling of carry over funds and have followed the law as given provided. Other city directors have done the same since 2010.
In the instance of Mr. Sabin, he also has had carryover funds and has chosen to use them in various ways including purchasing campaign software merely 2 weeks before he announced his campaign for Mayor. Surely that was not for a state rep campaign. Sabin and Scott were sent copies of the campaign finance laws immediately after they announced the formation of their committees. Mr. Carpenter advised them that the campaign timeline limitations applied to all municipal campaigns, exploratory or otherwise. They have recklessly chosen to ignore the law and the advice of the city attorney. Why don’t you report on these issues fairly?
I’ll take that as a “yes” to my core question.
Stodola is ignoring the plain language of an ordinance that he wants enforced in part against his challengers. The perintnent portion, adopted in 1997:
Sec. 2-389. – Balance of funds over expenses.
Within thirty (30) days following a general election, if there is no campaign deficit, a candidate for municipal office shall turn over any balance of campaign funds over expenses incurred as of the day of election either to:
(a) The city for the benefit of the city general fund; or (b) A nonprofit organization which is exempt from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of the United State Internal Revenue Code; or (c) The contributors to the candidate’s campaign; or (d) A combination of the entities listed in this subsection.
Stodola has been provided cover by City Attorney Tom Carpenter. Carpenter argues that state law prevents the city from placing restrictions on use of this carryover money, but the state law cited by the state Ethics Commission on the Sabin and Scott exploratory committees does NOT override the ordinance on early fund-raising.
Nobody is covered with glory here. Sabin and Scott are exploiting a legal loophole. That it’s legal in the eyes of the state doesn’t mean it doesn’t run counter to the spirit of the 1997 ordinance. Stodola is a hypocrite for orchestrating a lawsuit against Sabin and Scott while choosing to find his own loophole (and incumbent advantage) to use money city ordinance clearly says he should not use.
Frank Scott’s right. The ordinance should be repealed. Lawyer Chris Burks, who’ll likely represent Sabin, has been arguing for some time that the city’s ordinance is a bad idea because it offers a template for cities to impose a variety of restrictions outside state law on fund-raising. It is better, he says, to have a single state law universally applicable. That’s certainly so if the law that exists can be interpreted — and prosecuted — to suit those in power. As Burks notes, Carpenter works at the pleasure of Stodola and the City Board, which directed him to file this suit to protect their interest in restricting challengers’ ability to campaign. Legal, maybe. A conflict of interest? Yes. But it follows the pattern set by the state legislature, which has favored itself with generous carryover provisions and the ability to raise that money even when they have no election opposition. What’s the power of incumbency worth if not employed in self-interest?
UPDATE: Stodola reiterated this morning to a followup question:
The city attorney has issued a formal legal opinion that officeholders may have carryover funds. He issued this opinion after changes in the [state] law. I am complying with the law, not ignoring it.
UPDATE II: Warwick Sabin says Stodola is “100 percent incorrect” in what he said about his use of state legislative campaign funds. “It just demonstrates he can’t even get his facts straight.”
Sabin said the expenditure Stodola cited for campaign software was to close out an account with a software provider he used in three state legislative races. He’s using different software in the mayoral race and his exploratory campaign committee reports show payments to that provider with money raised for that purpose.
“I never used carryover funds to pay for exploratory efforts,” Sabin said.