During its Nov. 17 meeting at the Capitol, the Ethics Commission received a staff report recommending changes to the Political Subdivisions Ethics Act, which governs municipal and school board elections. Issues with the PSEA began to arise following Oklahoma City’s March and April elections, in which four City Council seats were up for a vote.
During those elections, two groups — the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum and Better Local Government — were funded by newly established nonprofits used to funnel money from anonymous donors to the groups to be spent by the two committees backing or attacking City Council candidates.
It was later learned that Momentum was backed by a Greater Oklahoma City Chamber program, while Better Local Government was backed by a firefighter group. The two organizations were acting under new ground rules for political donations established under the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
right, John Raley
In June, the Oklahoma Gazette filed a request with the Ethics Commission for interpretation of the PSEA regarding:
—who has jurisdiction over complaints about campaign filings in municipal elections; —where a contribution and expen diture report must be filed by groups supporting or opposing candidates for municipal office; —on what basis would an entity be exempt from classification as a political action committee; and —if an entity sending money to a nonprofit organization participating in electioneering would be subject to campaign disclosure requirements.
The Ethics Commission in August stated that, on advice from the Attorney General’s Office, it could not clarify the issue, since only a candidate could bring such issues before the commission.
However, at the commission’s Nov. 17 meeting, Ethics Commission general counsel Rebecca Adams gave a presentation to the commission stating that the PSEA needed overhauling.
The report was completed with the help of the Oklahoma City Office of the Municipal Counselor and undertaken to locate sections of the PSEA that could be clarified, streamlined or updated, at the request of commission member Karen Long.
While the Ethics Commission can change or amend rules for state and county elections, it cannot do so for municipal elections, since doing so would require a change of Oklahoma law, which requires legislative action.
During her presentation, Adams said the most pressing issue with the PSEA would be to bring it into alignment with the Citizens United decision and other recent court rulings, followed by updating “clearly outdated” definitions.
“Staff submits that the Ethics Commission should play no part in criminal matters, which properly belong to the local district attorney,” Adams said.
Fourth, the report recommended asking the Legislature to clarify that the commission administers the PSEA with respect to candidates, candidate committees and other persons or committees at the county level only, and specify whether the agency is to issue ethics interpretations at any level of government.
right, a meeting of the Ethics Commission
Fifth, the report recommended the removal of language from the PSEA that is “antiquated or unworkable.”
Finally, the report recommended resolving contradictory or inconsistent sections of the PSEA, such as a $200 reporting threshold cited in one section, and $500 in another.
“I think the philosophy that this sets forth is very consistent with various discussions that the commissioners have had, certainly over the last year,” said Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid, one of the candidates targeted by the Committee for Oklahoma City Momentum in the City Council election.
Shadid attended the meeting, but was not allowed to speak on the item. Long said she was concerned that allowing public comment without it listed as an agenda item would constitute an Open Meetings Act violation.
Sense of Urgency
Public comment will be allowed on the item at the Dec. 16 meeting.
Attorneys advised commissioners to postpone action on the item because no public hearing had been scheduled, said Commissioner John Raley, who also expressed concern that there wasn’t much time to approve the measure before the next legislative session.
“Time is growing short. Anything that goes before the Legislature for the coming session is already headed that direction,” Raley said.
Shadid said he plans to file a complaint with the district attorney’s office in relation to nearly a dozen political action committees that donated money to candidates, but did not register with the city.
“I think the election in March and April has exposed tremendous flaws in the current political subdivisions act,” Shadid said after the meeting.
“We’re 16 months away from City Council elections,” Shadid said. “I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle. We’re never going back to the way City Council elections were before.”
Photos by Mark Hancock