When it comes to laws that require transparency from our elected or would-be elected officials, we’re all in favor of adding teeth that forces them to comply. With that said, Taneytown’s City Council might want to take a step back and give a little more thought to a fining structure being proposed for its campaign finance reporting.
Earlier this month, the council introduced legislation amending the city’s campaign finance ordinance to give fining authority to Taneytown’s Ethics Commission.
The commission requested that it be given fining authority as a way to get candidates to continue to comply with the city’s campaign finance law after the election is over, when a fourth report and an annual report must be submitted.
This request came after the committee found discrepancies in two candidates’ postelection reports following the 2017 city election that it was unable to clear up because it did not have a sufficient enforcement mechanism. With another round of city elections coming up in 2019, the council introduced the ordinance, likely with plans to pass it before candidates can begin filing for seats.
The existing law does give the ethics commission the authority to file misdemeanor charges with the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office, but in this particular case where the discrepancies in question totaled a little more than $11, City Attorney Jay Gullo described filing charges as “the hammer,” being a bit too extreme, whereas allowing for fines would be more like a “flyswatter.”
But with fines of up to $500 per violation written into the new ordinance, it has potential to be a high-voltage electric flyswatter.
It doesn’t happen often, but we find ourselves agreeing with Councilman Donald Frazier here. He was the lone council member at the Dec. 10 meeting to vote against the ordinance, objecting to giving the citizen commission the broad authority to subjectively fine candidates. “You can’t always trust people to make impartial judgments if everything is subjective,” he said.
While we would hope that members of the Ethics Commission would be, well, ethical, we do think it would make more sense for the ordinance to spell out a fine-structure, and not give so much leeway for the commission to decide how much to fine. The mayor and at least one councilman suggested this latitude because the violation could be accidental versus intentional. We would argue that intent would be difficult to prove, and could lead to litigation against the city if a candidate believes he or she was wrongly fined for making a honest mistake.
That’s not to say every potential violation must be spelled out and assigned a monetary amount. That’s impractical. Rather, keep it simple. If the Ethics Commission finds that a candidate is not in compliance in any way, shape or form, that candidate has a set amount of time — say, 15 or 30 days — to correct it or else a fine of $100 could be levied.
At that point, additional fines could be levied for any additional tardiness — think of them as late fees on a credit card bill — or other future violations.
This would limit the latitude granted to the Ethics Commission of assigning a dollar amount, and gives those who made an honest mistake an opportunity to correct it before being assessed a fine. And if losing candidates choose to be obstinate and not address concerns in a timely manner, they can and should be fined significantly. If candidates are indeed being shady and hiding something, the process should reveal that behavior or they will be fined if they refuse to make corrections to accurately disclose.
Giving teeth to campaign finance law is a good idea, but it needs to be done in an objective way.