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The next step

State and city officials mull transparency of elections in a post-Citizens United world.

Clifton Adcock January 25th, 2012

The Oklahoma Ethics Commission has sent a recommendation to the state Legislature that it be removed from oversight of local elections and the laws governing such elections be scrapped and rewritten.

Meanwhile, at least two Oklahoma City Council members have suggested that the city look into forming its own election reporting requirements and oversight body prior to the 2013 council and mayoral elections.

During the council’s Jan. 17 meeting, Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid and Ward 4 Councilman Pete White expressed disappointment that the Ethics Commission had failed to act on sending recommendations for changes to the Political Subdivisions Ethics Act, or PSEA, which governs city and school board elections, at the commission’s special meeting on Jan. 12. The issue comes nearly a year after a contentious set of Oklahoma City Council elections in which political action committees spent an unprecedented amount of money — more than half a million dollars between two groups — attacking and supporting certain candidates. 

The two “independent expenditure” groups were funded exclusively by nonprofits that were able to circumvent donor disclosure requirements, thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case. That controversial decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, eliminated many constraints on corporate spending for independent expenditures in elections.

right, Protesters outside the OKC Federal Courthouse on Jan. 20 observe the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision.

Donations in the city races were eventually traced to the firefighters’ union and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber Forward IV program.

Change the system?
White said something must be done to prevent a repeat of last year’s elections.

"We need to change our system. If we have to do it internally, we need to do it internally,” he said. “We cannot let this go through another election cycle. If we wait for the Legislature, we'll have two more election cycles."

Shadid said the next round of municipal elections may see even more money poured into it and more groups that do not register.

“The Ethics Commission made clear they don't have the manpower or the will or even, in their opinion, the jurisdiction to oversee our elections, so we are a municipality with elections that now will be bigger than many state legislature races without an ethics commission to oversee our elections," Shadid said. "Everybody knows [the PSEA is] completely inadequate; everybody knows there's no enforcement; and everybody knows they can do whatever they want next year."

right, Protester Annie Stueber outside the federal courthouse on Jan. 20.

A question of ethics
Meanwhile, the Ethics Commission met Jan. 20, one day prior to the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United decision, and voted to amend its own rules by requiring disclosure of groups making independent expenditures in state elections. The panel also added language to the criminal code to define “independent expenditures” in elections.

In addition, the commission had three separate proposals regarding the PSEA before it: one from staff that kept administration of the law under the Ethics Commission; a second by Vice Chairman Thomas Walker that kept the PSEA under the agency, but added provisions for willful violations of the PSEA to be cause for removal from office; and a third proposal by Chairwoman Karen Long removed the PSEA from the commission's purview and recommended the law be rewritten.

The commission voted 3-2 to send Long’s recommendation to the Legislature, along with a request that a legislative task force be created to look at the issues facing the PSEA, as well as an amendment to add language from Walker's proposal that remove from office elected officials who willfully violate the PSEA.

Photos by Mark Hancock

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