Scuttling Limits

Group advises scuttling limits on campaigns: Proposal could cause divisions for council

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Stephanie Warsmith, AKRON BEACON JOURNAL, 6/27/10. AKRON — In 1998, 63 percent of Akron voters approved a charter change adopting some of the most restrictive campaign-finance limits in the country.

Now, the group reviewing the city’s charter thinks these limits should be stripped.

The Charter Review Commission, which is finishing its once-a-decade review, is recommending the charter’s campaign-finance section be replaced with a directive that council pass a new campaign-finance ordinance.

Council would have 90 days to adopt the ordinance and would be required to review it every two years with a public hearing.

John Frank, a former Akron councilman who is serving on the commission for the fourth time, recommended the change. Frank thinks the limits — $100 for ward council candidates and $300 for at-large council and mayoral candidates — are too low
and don’t belong in the charter.

”It’s a pretty darn good compromise, I think,” said Frank, the commission’s co-chairman. ”We are taking care of the spirit of what the voters want. We’re not just taking it out. We’re saying there are problems with the way this was written.”

The campaign-finance change is among the more controversial recommendations the nine-member, bipartisan commission will make in its report to council Thursday. The commission is suggesting changes — some very minor — to 14 sections of the charter.

Council will have only a few weeks before its summer break in August to decide whether the commission’s suggestions should be on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The campaign-finance section of the charter, put on the ballot through a petition drive by the Dollars and Democracy citizens’ group, has resulted in years of litigation and debate.

Other cities’ limits

A review by Akron’s law department found that Cincinnati is the only other major Ohio city with contribution limits in its charter.

Cincinnati’s limits are much higher than Akron’s — $1,000 for individuals, $2,500 for political action committees and $10,000 for political parties or legislative campaign funds.

Other big Ohio cities, including Cleveland, have limits in their ordinances.

Cleveland’s charter was changed two years ago, requiring its city council to adopt an ordinance setting contribution limits. Last June, council approved an ordinance that included contributions limits of $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 to $8,000 for political action committees, depending on the membership of the committee.

Frank thinks Akron’s limits, especially 12 years after the charter provision was adopted, are so low, they would be deemed unconstitutional.

”To me, these limits actually prevent free speech and campaign dialogue,” said Frank, the last Republican to serve on Akron council. ”You don’t have the funds to get the message out to your voters.”

Summit County Republican Chairman Alex Arshinkoff agrees the limits need to be changed. He said they are ”beyond an incumbent-protection plan” and make it difficult for challengers.

”You can’t buy pencils for $100 and hand them out,” said Arshinkoff, who considered a petition drive to up the limits, but didn’t pursue it.

Charter vs. ordinance

Those who proposed the limits, though, think they belong in the charter.

”The law now is what was passed by voters,” said Greg Coleridge, director of the local American Friends Service Committee, who was among the Dollars and Democracy leaders. ”It’s harder to change if politicians don’t like what it is. An ordinance can be changed the next week after it’s passed. A charter change has to go through voters. That’s more democratic. Inclusive. Legitimate.”

Dollars and Democracy pushed for the low limits to address the perception that large donors could buy influence and to lessen an incumbent’s ability to amass campaign war chests, leveling the playing field for challengers.

Coleridge thinks the limits have worked. For instance, they prevented Mayor Don Plusquellic from giving large donations to council incumbents, as he did in the past.

Coleridge sent a letter to the commission, urging that the limits be maintained in the charter, while suggesting that they be indexed for inflation. He cited a 2009 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school that found ”the lowest contribution limits, those set at $500 or below, enhance challengers’ ability to campaign against incumbents in state legislative races.”

Council’s stance

Council President Marco Sommerville, who is council’s representative on the commission, favors removing the charter language but warned the commission during its last meeting Friday that the majority of council might not.

”I don’t know if I can get it through,” he told them.

Council members recently had a spirited debate on a proposed ordinance that said the contribution limits don’t apply when candidates are raising money for purposes other than their own elections. Sommerville said this proposal will be put on hold, pending the outcome of the charter review discussion.

Frank plans to explain his rationale for removing the campaign-finance language to council at its July 19 meeting.

William Rich, a University of Akron law professor and commission member, said council may have to instead propose an increase to the limits, with a regular, inflationary increase.

Council is expected to begin its discussion of the proposals at its July 12 meeting.

Other changes proposed

Other possibly controversial charter changes the commission is recommending include:

  • RECALLS: Increase the number of days to circulate petitions from 30 to 50, while removing a second, 20-day period to gather the required number of signatures. Prohibit a recall when an elected official has only six months remaining in his or her term or until six months after an unsuccessful recall attempt.
  • INITIATIVES/REFERENDUMS: Boost the number of signatures required for initiatives and referendums, tying the threshold to the number of registered voters, rather than the number of people who actually voted. Voters approved this change for recalls last November. Initiatives are voter-recommended changes, while referendums are voter-initiated efforts to repeal council ordinances.
  • PUBLIC UTILITIES: Specify that the requirement for voter approval before the sale or lease of any city-owned public utility applies only to water and sewer.

Opposition to some or all of these recommendations could come from several groups, including the American Friends Service Committee, Change Akron Now, which pushed for last year’s unsuccessful recall of Plusquellic, and Citizens for a Better Akron, headed by former Akron Councilman Ernie Tarle, the only Akron politician ever recalled from office.

At the same time, these groups plan to have a petition drive to get their own charter change on the ballot: requiring a public comment period during council meetings. The two tasks will force the activists to divide their efforts, though Coleridge said they will be united in a single goal.

”The common theme will be increasing or maintaining the ability for citizens to have direct democracy,” he said.

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