Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wyss Fights Ft. Wayne Ordinance Banning Contributions From City Contractors

State Sen. Tom Wyss, not known for supporting ethics reform during his long tenure in the Indiana Senate, is openly opposing efforts by Ft. Wayne City Councilor Liz Brown (R) to ban Ft. Wayne mayoral and council candidates from accepting campaign contributions from city contractors. Wyss asked and received from the Legislative Services Agency and the state elections board opinions stating that the proposed ordinance was not authorized under state law according to the Journal-Gazette's Benjamin Lanka. Wyss, who lives in a home he owns on Indianapolis near northside while representing his Ft. Wayne district in the Senate, is now asking Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to weigh in with a similar legal opinion.

State Sen. Tom Wyss wants Indiana’s attorney general to issue an opinion on the legality of the bill before Fort Wayne City Council that would ban city contractors from making political donations to city politicians.
In a letter dated Thursday, Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, asks Attorney General Greg Zoeller for an opinion on the bill written by Councilwoman Liz Brown, R-at large, just a few days after a divided council voted to introduce the legislation for discussion.
After being contacted by Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd, about the issue, Wyss said he did some initial investigations to the bill’s legality. He checked with Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency and the state election board, both of which told him the bill is not permitted under state law. The request for an attorney general opinion is intended to help his constituents avoid having to pay to defend a lawsuit if the bill is challenged, Wyss said.
“I don’t want to see taxpayers pay stupid tax money to defend a suit,” he said.
Bryan Corbin, spokesman for Zoeller, confirmed the office’s receipt of the letter but said the attorney general has not yet decided whether to offer a legal opinion on the subject.
He said the opinions are not binding but are given to assist state government clients in navigating their way through complex intergovernmental questions.

Lanka has more on what Brown's proposed ordinance provides:

It would prohibit a company, company owner, company owner spouse, company subcontractor, subcontractor owner or subcontractor owner spouse from doing business with the city if that person made political donations to city candidates or elected officials during the previous year.
A company that violates the proposal would have the opportunity to have the contribution returned to avoid penalty. A company that does not remedy its violation is subject to having its contract canceled and being banned from any city contract for three years.
Opponents have argued that Brown’s bill not only has First Amendment problems but also violates state law that prohibits communities from enacting their own election or campaign finance laws.

In a separate story, Lanka picks up on the fact that another city, Jeffersonville, has had an ordinance on the book for years that severely limits the amount of money city contractors can contribute to city candidates without any legal challenges. Lanka describes the Jeffersonville ordinance that was adopted in response to the influence contributions by city contractors was having over city government:

In 2006, the Jeffersonville City Council approved an ordinance limiting how much city contractors could give to municipal candidates and elected officials. Unlike the Fort Wayne proposal, however, the law does not prohibit such political gifts.
Jeffersonville Councilman Keith Fetz, D-3rd, championed the proposal after noticing a number of no-bid contracts awarded to companies who made political contributions to the mayor at the time.
“We were all concerned it was sending the improper message that campaign contributions equal government contracts,” he said.
The law broadly addresses many areas of ethics, but Section 2.14 deals with contributions to elected officials. It essentially limits contractors who have done business in the preceding four years or are seeking a city contract from donating more than $200 to a political candidate in a year.

Larry Wilder served as Jeffersonville's counsel at the time it enacted the ordinance. He explained how the city carefully crafted the ordinance to lessen free speech concerns:

Larry Wilder, chief litigation counsel for Jeffersonville Mayor Tom Galligan, helped write the bill in 2006 when he also worked for the council. He said giving money to candidates is viewed as a form of free speech, so the city was careful not to ban political gifts outright. The council tried to determine what level of contribution would still be significant to a local race but could not finance it completely, he said.
In the city of nearly 45,000 people, Wilder said, council races can cost as little as $5,000 while mayoral candidates can spend up to $100,000. Fort Wayne’s mayoral race is expected to cost up to $1 million this year.
Wilder said he would be concerned the Fort Wayne law would be challenged because it prohibits all political donations by contractors.
Jeffersonville worked under the premise that the city could pass a law adding restrictions to state law but could not reduce state restrictions. He compared it to the fact cities can lower speed limits on state highways within their limits.

As this blog has pointed out on numerous occasions, Pay To Play is the way of doing business in Indianapolis and throughout the state with few restrictions on who can make campaign contributions. Mayor Greg Ballard receives nearly 90% of his campaign contributions from Pay To Play contractors and their employees. These are the same people who help finance his overseas junkets and provide him free meals,  and free concert and sporting event tickets. Ideally, the state would enact a uniform law that would restrict campaign contributions by government contractors, but the Jeffersonville ordinance is certainly a step in the right direction.

Don't expect any changes in Indianapolis any time soon though. Our City-County Council President, Ryan Vaughn, is a lobbyist for the state's largest law firm, Barnes & Thornburg, that lavishes large campaign contributions on state and local candidates. Vaughn's law firm effectively controls Indianapolis city government by exercising total control over the council's business through Vaughn and through its order-taker mayor, Greg Ballard.

1 comment:

Paul K. Ogden said...

There is a saying that if you can't say something nice about someone, say nothing at all. In the spirit of that philosophy, here's what I'd like to say about Senator Tom Wyss: