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Taneytown Council introduces campaign finance ordinance

The Taneytown Mayor and Council at their monthly meeting Monday, Dec. 10, introduced legislation that would amend the city’s campaign finance law.

Ordinance 08-2018 updates Taneytown’s Campaign Finance Ordinance, which requires candidates for elected office to report financial contributions and expenditures to the city’s Ethics Commission. The bill would allow the volunteer commission to impose fines or penalties, among other provisions.

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Lawmakers debated the scope of the amendments at a workshop meeting the prior Wednesday. The robust discussion yielded no changes to the ordinance, as council voted 3-1 in favor of introducing the bill. Councilman Donald Frazier opposed it, suggesting that giving the fining authority to the commission was too much.

“Right now there is no provision for fines,” Jay Gullo, the city’s attorney, told lawmakers at the Dec. 5 workshop. “And that’s what (the commission) wanted, because right now there’s no way for them to enforce candidates doing things if they just say, ‘Well, we’re not doing them.’”

The ordinance comes after the commission reckoned for months following the city election of 2017 with what it said were discrepancies in candidates Katherine Adelaide’s and Rhonda Kristings’ filings. Neither were elected to the City Council.

“Everyone complied up until the election. The problem is after the election — because you don’t want an ethics report coming out while you’re a candidate,” Gullo said. “The only ones that comply after are the ones that are elected. People that lose, what do you do if they don’t comply?”

This legislation would allow the commission to impose fines of up to $500 per violation if a candidate fails to comply with the law. The commission already had the authority to file misdemeanor charges with the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Ethics commissioners saw that option as extreme, Gullo said. “That’s the hammer and there’s no flyswatter here.”

Frazier objected to giving the commission “subjective” authority to fine candidates and instead asked to amend the ordinance to include a list that defined a fee for each violation. Proceeding without a schedule of fees would allow the commission to fine one candidate more than another for the same offense, he said.

“I wouldn’t give a committee of people in a small town the authority to fine me $500,” he said at the workshop meeting. “You can’t always trust people to make impartial judgments if everything is subjective.”

Mayor James McCarron, and other council members, contested Frazier’s perspective.

“The purpose of an Ethics Board is to have an impartial board that evaluates circumstances and situations and acts accordingly, so I have no problem at all with having variable fines,” McCarron said Dec. 5. “Somebody that is blatantly violating the intent of the section should be fined higher than somebody that just made a mistake.”

Councilman Bradley Wantz said it would be impossible to predict every possible violation and likened the provisions outlined for the ethics commission in the bill to the discretion applied by courts.

“It’s the same thing you’re going to find at any court level, any of those fines are subjective, because it depends on: is the intent there, how severe is the crime or the mistake, how many times have they done this,” Wantz told his peers at the workshop. “It has to be subjective. That way you stop the repeat offenses; you stop the big issues.”

Taneytown’s practice allows those who self-fund their campaigns, as long as they say they will not contribute more than $500, to be exempt from some of the campaign finance disclosure laws.

Those who self-fund do not have to open a campaign finance account and they do not need to report contributions — only expenditures. Candidates who accept contributions must open a checking account dedicated to their campaign.

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Candidates who bankroll their campaigns should not be exempt from any of the campaign finance law, Frazier said on Dec. 5: “I don’t think self-funding people should be exempt from transparency.”

The councilman’s point was largely welcomed, though some of his peers suggested there may be unintended collateral damage for extending all campaign finance provisions to self-funders.

“I’m not opposed to (Frazier’s) suggest at all. I think it lends itself better to transparency,” Wantz said. “My only concern is from a practical standpoint. Banks are getting extremely restrictive with balances in accounts.”

Councilwoman Diane Foster, the mayor pro tem, said extending all campaign finance provisions to those who finance their own campaigns would discourage people from running for office.

“If council decides to go that way, you basically affect who will run for office. That little bit of money by the time the bank fees you to death, you don’t have any money,” Foster said. “You can barely buy signs with $500. … You’re forcing people to have to get a political group behind them, raise funds.

“People don’t want to do that.”

If anything were to discourage people from running for office, Frazier said, it would be the new fining authority “if they know you can be fined $500 per offense.”

McCarron and Wantz said the possibility of being fined would only discourage those who had questionable intentions from running.

Added Wantz, “It would encourage honesty, not discourage running for office.”

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