Wednesday, April 18, 2012
What about campaign finance reform?
Ed FitzGerald and the county council want to make 10 changes in Cuyahoga County's charter, and they want to do it soon.
They want to write the inspector general into the charter (good idea), give the law department more power (a revival of their turf war with prosecutor Bill Mason), put the fiscal officer in charge of the treasurer's office (OK), and make some minor shifts in who does what. They aim to put all their ideas on the ballot this fall.
But one big issue is missing from their to-do list. What about campaign finance reform?
Political donors face limits on how much money they can give to federal candidates, state candidates, and candidates for Cleveland mayor and city council. But there are no limits for giving to candidates for county-wide office.
That's why the late Dick Jacobs was able to donate $36,000 to Jimmy Dimora's first campaign for county commissioner in 1998, and give Peter Lawson Jones $25,000 when he ran for commission in 2002. Dimora, Jones, and Tim Hagan then bought the Ameritrust complex from Jacobs in 2005 for $21.7 million. It was the unwise purchase of the decade.
Maybe gratitude for that early seed money played no part in the Ameritrust decision. But isn't it at least a cautionary tale about how no one person should play such a dominant role in a politician's campaign fund?
The big money got even bigger in 2010. Matt Dolan, Republican candidate for county executive, got contributions of $400,000 and $300,000 from his uncle, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, and his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan.
The charter's framers should have created campaign finance limits up front, rather than leave it to politicians who rely on contributions to run for re-election. They didn't.
How about contribution limits of $750 per election cycle to county council candidates and $1,000 to candidates for executive and prosecutor? That's what an advisory group working on the charter transition proposed. The idea went nowhere.
Instead, county councilman David Greenspan proposed an ordinance in July that would set the contribution limit really high -- at $12,000. And even that extremely mild reform has been languishing in the rules committee, which Greenspan chairs, ever since.
You would think that FitzGerald would push for campaign contribution limits, if only to protect himself from a financial assault similar to Dolan's in 2014. Not so.
If FitzGerald and the council don't take action, citizens will have to. Campaign finance reform should be the first thing the charter review commission tackles when it convenes in September.