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Taneytown City Council faces campaign finance fiasco

Alex Mann
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

It’s a combined discrepancy of $11.60.

Two dollars and 25 cents in the case of Rhonda Kristings, and $9.35 for Katherine Adelaide. Both women ran for Taneytown City Council in 2017. Neither satisfied campaign finance reporting requirements, city officials said.

Both candidates’ cases involved a small amount of money — pocket change — and they donated the money to charity. What’s the big deal, they argued.

Members of the Taneytown City Council and Board of Ethics saw it differently. It’s about integrity, honesty and transparency, they contested.

“It’s not that it’s about the money,” Councilman Joe Vigliotti said in an interview with the Carroll County Times. “It doesn’t matter if it’s $9 or $9,000.”

City Attorney Jay Gullo Jr. presented on behalf of the city’s ethics board at a council meeting on Wednesday, June 6. The board, Gullo said, still hasn’t resolved the discrepancies in Adelaide’s and Kristings’ campaign finance reports.

Taneytown adopted a campaign finance ordinance for the first time in 2016, employing it for the first time during the 2017 city council election. The ethics board was tasked with reviewing candidates’ campaign finance forms. Because it was uncharted territory for the city and its candidates for public office, the board was lenient during the maiden voyage.

“The ethics board went above and beyond to work with everybody to make sure their forms were done correctly,” Vigliotti said.

But Adelaide and Kristings described completing the forms as an arduous and tricky process — hours they could’ve spent on the campaign trail. They also vehemently deny that they were not in compliance with the campaign finance ordinance.

“It’s completely false,” said Adelaide, who is currently running for the District 1 Carroll County Commissioner seat. “Everything is fully in compliance.”

“We answered all of the questions of the ethics board,” said Kristings, who is Adelaide’s treasurer for her county commissioner campaign.

Adelaide said she believes that bringing up the campaign finance discrepancies from the Taneytown election so close to the Carroll County commissioner election was a “political attack” by Gullo.

“They’re just trumping up anything to derail my campaign,” Adelaide said.

But the two candidates were in the minority, as four of six of their opponents for Taneytown City Council completed the campaign finance forms in full compliance. The timing in relation to the county election would be a non-issue had the forms been finished on time and completely, Gullo said.

“Perhaps if they were more diligently completed by them the issue would have been wrapped up in a more timely manner, consistent with the requirements of the Ordinance,” Gullo wrote in an email to The Times.

According to a presentation prepared by city staff for the Taneytown Ethics Commission, Kristings’ financial forms fell short of rules outlined in the city ordinance. There were approximately $50 in unreported expenditures and an unverifiable cash donation of $2.25, validated by the annotation “donated in collection plate in church.”

Adelaide’s financial disclosure forms were more flawed, according to the city’s presentation. The ending balance in one filing didn’t match the starting balance of the next and misrepresented an in-kind donation as cash.

The ethics board worked with the two candidates to help straighten out the forms. But to no avail, Gullo said.

Adelaide donated much of her surplus campaign money to charity, specifically Agora Evangelism Ministries in Taneytown, which is run by Taneytown City Councilman Donald Frazier and his wife, Robin Frazier, a former county commissioner and candidate for Clerk of the Circuit Court. Adelaide attached receipts documenting each donation to her re-submitted finance forms.

But a $9.35 donation to Agora Ministries — which Adelaide also provided documentation for — skewed previous filings. That money was listed as an expenditure, but did not match up with Adelaide’s previously reported contributions, according to the city.

Adelaide said the $9.35 was from money she contributed to her own campaign. Per the ordinance, candidates can contribute up to $500 to their campaigns and such money does not have to be put into a campaign account.

“The less than $10 was part of the cash, the $500 I donated to my own account, and when that was leftover I donated the cash to charity,” Adelaide said. “So what’s the problem?”

Taneytown officials maintain the accounting doesn’t add up. Repeatedly reviewing Adelaide’s and Kristings’ filings cost the city staff and ethics board a lot of time and taxpayer money, Gullo said. “It’s like having somebody do their homework right, versus having a teacher correct it all.”

The ethics board set a June 7 deadline for Adelaide and Kristings to file revised reports. As of June 11, neither candidate submitted reports, according to interim Taneytown City Manager Jim Wieprecht.

At the June City Council meeting, Gullo said the ethics board is “fed up.” Taneytown’s financial disclosure ordinance does not include provisions for the board of ethics to fine or penalize candidates who do not accurately file their campaign finance reports.

The board wants the council to change that. It also asked the council to consider outlawing the use of cash for campaign transactions, because cash is hard to account for, Gullo said. The ethics board requested that the council consider mandating candidates to make their already required, separate campaign bank account a checking account as opposed to savings account.

Taneytown Mayor James McCarron has already acknowledged that the council will closely examine the campaign finance ordinance to ensure that the requirements are clear. He also said that the idea of imposing a penalty or fine for candidates who don’t comply with the finance forms “makes complete sense.”

The council is not expected to meet again until August. It’s unclear whether it will take up the matter then.

alemann@baltsun.com

twitter.com/alex_mann10

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