Asheville City Council

When the cost of campaigning for public office makes even the candidates sweat, you know some kind of change is coming. But expecting the key players to agree on how much change is needed may be too much to ask for.

Campaign-finance reform became a hot-button issue in the wake of record-breaking spending during last year’s mayoral and Council races; critics charge that the escalating cost of running for local office and the influence of political action committees are subverting the democratic process. So, four months ago, Council appointed a citizens’ committee, charged with drafting a report on local campaign-finance reform.

Committee chair Wanda Adams, one of seven members hand-picked by Council back in April, presented the group’s findings at Council’s Aug. 6 work session.

The report — less than two pages long, but attached to a half-inch-thick stack of research — makes 11 recommendations for curbing campaign spending and ensuring a more equitable election process, including increased filing fees, public funding for campaigns, enhanced media exposure and spending caps (see below).

Even some elected officials wince when remembering last year’s financial free-for-all.

“It’s a plea for help — to stop us before we spend again,” Council member Brian Peterson told the committee. He mentioned his own campaigns, including his unsuccessful run for mayor last year, which cost about $48,000. That race escalated into a spending war, with Charles Worley shelling out more than $123,000 en route to claiming the mayor’s seat. “Once you get into the heat of that, it’s hard to be rational,” confessed Peterson.

Most Council members have voiced support for some sort of reform, though for differing reasons and with varying ideas about what should be done. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turned out that the citizens’ committee had faced a similar situation.

Former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette — identifying himself and fellow member Kent Wolff as the committee’s minority bloc — challenged the constitutionality of some of the recommendations, as well as the overall effectiveness of campaign-finance reform.

“There’s no solution to some of these problems,” Bissette declared, though he did admit that there is a spending problem. Citing the nearly $10,000 he spent during his 1987 bid for a second term, he recalled, “I thought, my gosh, that is obscene.” Subsequent elections have rendered that amount of money negligible, however.

And though Bissette said he does support some of the report’s recommendations, he criticized others — such as mandatory donations and spending caps — taking pains to stress to Council that the committee hadn’t unanimously endorsed the recommendations.

But committee member Rod Whiteside challenged Bissette’s position, noting that despite some disagreements, all five committee members who attended the final meeting — Adams, Marie Colton, Max Haner, Whiteside and Wolff — did approve the report. The committee met five times, and Bissette (who was appointed by Mayor Worley) attended only the initial session. Christine McCormack, (appointed by Council member Joe Dunn) also missed the final meeting.

“These recommendations are the product of those committee members who were at the meeting,” said Whiteside, a former City Council candidate and a strong voice for reform. “We had to work with what we had.”

After the Council meeting, Whiteside explained that the committee had definitely been split over the appropriateness of certain reform measures.

“The issue is, we have to try something,” he argued.

These days, campaign-finance reform is a hot topic in politics at every level. Reformers charge that the current system gives political action committees and special-interest groups too much control over government; opponents counter that capping spending would violate the First Amendment and give incumbents an added advantage.

Dunn argued that both his own experience and that of fellow Council member Holly Jones prove it’s still possible to get elected without breaking the bank. Dunn, who spent roughly $28,000 on his campaign, was the top vote getter (8,486 votes). Jones (about $18,000; 8,454 votes) ran a close second. All the other candidates were more than 1,000 votes behind these two.

Like his fellow Council members, Dunn agreed with a few of the recommendations. But he branded others “unrealistic,” adding that such restrictions insult the intelligence of the voting public.

“You are telling voters they don’t have enough brainpower to figure it out,” he proclaimed.

Jones, however, maintained that the real issue is not who wins or loses but restoring the public’s trust in government.

“Whether we like it or not, the amount of money that’s being spent on campaigns — win or lose — is eroding something precious,” she warned.

One key target for reformers — a change in the wording of a critical financial reporting law — has already been addressed by the state legislature. The statute, which once required campaign finance reports to be filed either before a primary or a general election, has been changed (effective as of January 2002) to require that the reports be filed before both. This information has not yet been updated on all state government Web sites, but the State Board of Elections site lists the new statute as follows: “The treasurer shall file a report 10 days before the primary if the candidate is in the primary, and 10 days before the election.” Members of the citizen’s committee were pleased to find that one of their points of action had already been tackled, even before serious wrangling with the recommendations began.

As Council began kicking around some of the ideas, a few emerged as popular — such as raising the filing fee for candidates in municipal elections from the current $5 to $100. (The idea is that this would discourage frivolous campaigns, limiting information clutter and making it easier for voters to find out about serious candidates.) Other suggestions, however, met with more resistance.

What’s next?

Although the citizens’ committee has submitted its final report to the three-person Council committee (made up of Peterson, Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council member Carl Mumpower), Wanda Adams said her group would be willing to continue serving if Council decided to send the report back for clarifications and amendments.

“If you want to give us more direction, we will take more direction,” said Adams.

Right now, however, the ball is in Council’s court. The in-house committee will review the report, identifying the points they can agree on and consulting with both the citizens’ committee and City Attorney Bob Oast on the remaining points.

The filing deadline for the next Council race is just about a year away — not a lot to work with. Council members said they plan to revisit the report within the next month. But tackling the more controversial suggestions will take some wrangling, to say the least, and it remains to be seen how much can be done before the serious campaigning begins and the money once again starts to flow.

Meanwhile, those pulling for reform remain cautiously hopeful. As committee member (and former state legislator) Marie Colton told Council, “We may have a chance to do something that might be exemplary.”

What the citizen committee said

Here are the citizen committee’s 11 recommendations for reforming the local electoral process:

1. The city should make its print facilities available to candidates.

2. The city should partially finance local campaigns with a public fund.

3. Residents who are concerned about the escalating costs of local campaigns could contribute to a public fund to be accessed by candidates. The contributions would be made though a voluntary or mandatory donation included in the monthly water bill.

4. Send mailings with information submitted by all candidates.

5. The city should increase the filing fee for candidates to $100.

6. The city should establish spending limits for candidates. The limit should be in the range of $15,000 to $30,000 for Council candidates and $25,000 to $40,000 for mayoral candidates.

7. Use of public-access channel for candidate forums.

8. Allow a nonprofit group to sponsor a candidate forum on the government channel

9. Work with local media, especially TV news, to give more and better coverage of forums, etc.

10. Petition the state legislature to correct the loophole in the law that is clearly a drafting error with the legislation requiring campaign reports for municipal elections. The law should read that campaigns are required to file a report a week or 10 days before the primary election and a second report a week or 10 days before the general election. The law says file a report before the primary OR before the general.

11. Obtain a local act authorizing any ordinance that affects elections or campaigns. [The city must get permission from the General Assembly to change local election laws.]

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