Today, the charter review commission releases its proposed amendments to the county charter. Most of its ideas would tweak the checks and balances in our new government -- making it harder for the county executive to fire the sheriff, for example, or writing the job of inspector general into the charter.
But the best idea is designed to keep big money out of our elections and preserve our political leaders’ independence. It’s an amendment that would give the county council the duty to write campaign finance laws to govern county elections, including limits on campaign donations.
Right now, wealthy donors can give unlimited contributions to a county executive or county council candidate – checks so big, they practically obligate candidates to give the donor special access once in office. Five- and six-figure political donations are perfectly legal, even though they can drown out the voices of small donors and non-donors.
“Nationwide, not just this county, the funding of campaigns has gotten totally out of control,” says Bruce Akers, chairman of the charter review commission and a co-author of the 2009 charter.
“You can’t tell me that when candidate Jones or Smith gets elected and someone’s given him six or seven figures … [that it] doesn’t have influence,” Akers says. “There’s got to be some kind of parameters.”
A charter amendment may be the only way Cuyahoga County can limit big-money donations in its elections. Check out this quote from the Secretary of State’s Ohio Campaign Finance Handbook (pdf):
County or local candidates are not limited in the amount of contributions they may receive… unless there is a municipal or county charter that provides otherwise.
The old county government gave us a great example of the need for donor limits. The late developer Dick Jacobs gave Jimmy Dimora $36,000 and Peter Lawson Jones $25,000 in their first races for the old county commission. In 2005, Dimora and Jones voted to buy the vacant Ameritrust complex from Jacobs for almost $22 million. Jacobs got rid of a skyscraper albatross; taxpayers got stuck with it and took a big financial loss.
Can we do better?
Campaign finance reform faces three hurdles. First, the county council would have to vote to put the amendment on November’s ballot. Voters would have to approve it. Then the council would have to use its new power and enact meaningful limits -- in 2014, the year that half of them run for reelection.
That’s hardly a sure thing. Council members may be reluctant to limit donations to their own campaigns. It’s hard to raise a lot of small donations, easier to find a few wealthy sugar daddies.
“It’s difficult for officeholders to put a restriction on themselves,” Akers says. “That’s human nature.”
Which is why Akers and charter commission member William Tarter, Jr., have another idea. In a minority report, they’ve proposed an alternative charter amendment that would require Cuyahoga County to adopt the same campaign finance limit Ohio imposes in state races: currently $12,300. If the council were to put that on the ballot, voters could ban enormous, out-of-control donations in time for the 2014 county executive and council election.
The downside of Tarter and Akers’ idea is that a $12,300 limit is still too high. In races for president or Congress, a donor can only give a candidate $2,600 a year. In elections for Cleveland mayor and city council, it’s $1,000. Lower limits would do more to keep big donors from drowning out the voices of small donors and non-donors. Would the county council go for that?
Maybe – if enough people get behind campaign-finance reform and pressure the council to act.
It makes sense for us to debate how to choose a clerk of courts, protect the inspector general, and change sheriffs. But we can’t let those debates distract from the most important one we need to have this summer: how to keep big money from controlling our new government.
Update, 3:30 pm: Here is the charter review commission's report, which proposes 15 amendments to the county charter. The campaign finance proposal is on page 10. Tarter and Akers' minority report is on p. 41.
“In 2010,” Tarter and Akers note, “one county candidate received $400,000 from a single individual.” They're thinking of Matt Dolan, who got $400,000 from his uncle, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, and $300,000 from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan.
I'll write about the other major amendments later this month.