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Howard County Council member outraged by denial of matching campaign funds, calling it political manipulation

A technicality of language has resulted in Howard County candidates being denied matching campaign funds this election season.

On Monday night, the Citizens Election Fund Commission met to discuss the matter, which was brought to its attention by Howard County Council member Deb Jung.

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Jung, who filed to run for reelection to her District 4 council seat in June, said the county’s financial director on Friday denied her request for $43,827 in matching funds from the Citizens Election Fund.

To be eligible for up to $85,000 in matching county funds, council candidates must collect at least $10,000 from at least 125 donations. These funds are only available for candidates in contested races, meaning at least two candidates’ names must appear on the ballot. The rules also state that the determination date for when a race is “contested” is six months prior to the Feb. 22 state filing deadline. In other words, the deadline was Aug. 3, 2021.

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This technicality is what resulted in the withholding of funds from Jung. As of Aug. 3, the race for her seat was uncontested; however, in December, Hank Boyd filed to run for the same council seat.

In December, Jung applied for the matching funds. Her request was approved by the Howard County Finance Department and then the State Board of Elections on Jan. 4.

On Jan. 6, Rafiu Ighile, Howard County’s director of finance, denied issuance of the funds to Jung, pointing to the Aug. 3, 2021 deadline. Howard County’s primary election is in June.

The withholding of funds would affect all candidates using the Citizens Election Fund, including Allan Kittleman, who filed to run for county executive in September.

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“There is no question the intent was for a contested primary to get these funds,” Kittleman said. “It is very important for the commission to take a strong stance on this.”

Jon Weinstein, a former Howard County Council member who introduced the bill in 2017, agreed the rules were incorrectly written.

“There is no harm done to release the funds,” Weinstein said. “The harm is sticking with the technicality.”

In October, Sue Geckle, chair of the Citizens’ Election Fund, sent a letter to County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council requesting emergency legislation to immediately correct the error that specified the August deadline. There was no mention that matching funds would be denied at that time and no legislation was filed by Oct. 21, the last day possible for new legislation because of the December legislative recess.

On Monday, Jung addressed the Citizens Election Fund Commission.

“I am trying to keep myself together but it’s a little difficult,” Jung said. “After all the time making the Citizens Election Fund successful, to learn Friday night they withheld my distribution… there was first outrage and then disappointment.”

Corrective legislation was filed on Dec. 22 by Councilman David Yungmann.

If approved by the County Council and signed by the county executive, the corrective legislation could be categorized as emergency legislation and go into effect right away, allowing for the disbursement of funds. If not deemed an emergency, the legislation would not take effect until April 10 at the earliest – with little time remaining before the primary election.

Jung argued that the withholding was “manipulated for political purposes.”

“This decision will ruin this program,” Jung said. “This is a decision with no basis, to take a technicality in language and use it to undermine.”

In an email, Mark Miller, administrator to the Office of Public Information, stated: “We are aware of restrictions identified by the Citizen’s Election Fund (CEF) Commission in the county code impacting when the director of finance may legally distribute public financing, a subsequent request by a participating candidate for public contributions that is currently prohibited by the code, and the director of finance’s denial of the participating candidate’s request based on the restrictions identified by the CEF commission.

“We are aware that Councilmember David Yungmann has filed legislation mid-election cycle seeking to amend the rules of the CEF by striking Section §10.306(a)(3)(i) from the county code, and are currently monitoring that legislation.”

Kittleman urged everyone at the Monday meeting to write to the county executive directly.

“I sat in that chair for four years and know directors don’t act until the county executive says,” Kittleman said. “Hopefully, we’ll make a difference.”

The commission voted in favor of writing letters to the council and the county executive asking them to approve emergency legislation.

“I am incredibly concerned,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, a Citizens Election Commission member. “Howard County is consistently seen as a county that gets things right. This was clearly mistaken language.”

The Citizens Election Fund was created after Howard County voters approved a measure in 2016 to allow for a publicly funded election campaign system, which allows candidates who raise enough small donations and shun large contributions to get matching funds from a county fund.

The Howard County Council approved the creation of the Citizens Election Fund in 2017. Before the creation of the fund, roughly two-thirds of the total money raised for county executive and county council races in 2010 and 2014 came from outside Howard County, according to an analysis by Fair Elections Howard. Nonprofit organizations such as Common Cause Maryland, Progressive Maryland and Maryland PIRG pushed for the change as part of a broad effort to wrap publicly funded campaigns into local jurisdiction’s campaign finance systems.

Individuals may contribute up to $250 to the fund, but only donations from Howard County residents will be matched using county funds. To be eligible to receive up to $700,000 in county funds, candidates for county executive must demonstrate grassroots support by collecting at least $40,000 from 500 donations.

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