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A thousand foxes, a thousand henhouses …
By JIM WALLS
Feb. 7, 2013 — Another consequence, perhaps unintended, lurks in an ethics bill moving through the Georgia Legislature.
Enforcement of some aspects of campaign finance law, under a bill sponsored by House Speaker David Ralston, would shift to city clerks and county election superintendents across Georgia. They would be expected to collect late fees from candidates for city and county office, recall committees and the like — a task now assigned to the state ethics commission.
Legislative leaders in the House tout the move as “tantamount to a funding increase” for the commission. A tsunami of paperwork inundated the commission in 2011 after lawmakers required local candidates to file personal and financial disclosures with the state. Most are available in electronic format online.
The question is: How diligently will local election officials rat out incumbents who are, in many cases, their bosses?
Past experience says that could be a problem. Before 2011, local election officials were supposed to provide the names of late filers to the commission, which could impose the appropriate penalty. At the time, state officials told me that cities and counties weren’t always good at reporting violators in a timely fashion, or at all.
Under Ralston’s bill, local election officials would not only have to identify the late filers, but fine them as well. The stakes are higher now: Late fees, once $75, now can run up to $1,000 per report.
There’s no way to know how localities would fulfill this new duty. It’s not hard, though, to foresee trouble.
Take my home county, DeKalb. Please. (With apologies to Henny Youngman.)
DeKalb Commissioner Lee May, for instance, owes the commission $625 in late fees for five reports filed since 2011. But county records show he could have been fined four more times for reports that were filed three to seven months late in 2007 and 2008.
May told me this week that neither state nor county officials ever contacted him about those late reports. “I don’t recall being notified of it from our local folk or the ethics commission either,” he said.
The state’s online filing system automatically generates notices of late fees. A year ago, the Legislature appropriated $100,000 to upgrade that system so it could handle all the extra filings.
Ralston’s plan would abandon this automated enforcement system and allow many local candidates to disclose campaign finances much less frequently. Those who promised they’d raise and spend $2,500 or less could disclose nothing. Those raising $2,500 to $5,000 would file only two disclosures in an election year.
Those reaching the $5,000 threshold — even Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, whose mayoral campaign has raised $5 million — could file disclosures on paper, rather than in an easy-to-use digital format, with no guarantee they’d be posted online.
Atlanta offers an example of the political complications that could impede local enforcement. City Clerk Rhonda Dauphine Johnson, who reports directly to the City Council, ran into trouble in 2011 for using city employees and a city-leased truck to move furniture from a downtown condominium to her home.
Johnson paid an ethics fine and restitution of $801. Should we now expect her to enforce filing requirements rigorously against city council members who let her keep her job?
Ralston proposes this move as a reform that would free up the ethics commission’s resources without a funding increase.
The other step that would be tantamount to a funding increase would, of course, be a funding increase. A few hundred thousand dollars, perhaps a half-million, would put the commission in a much better position for enforcement without sacrificing increased transparency of local campaigns.
Seems like a small price to pay, in a state budget of $17.4 billion, to help restore public trust in government.