Should mayoral or City Council candidates in Keene have to report their campaign expenditures and contributions to the clerk’s office?
Councilors narrowly recommended drafting an ordinance that would impose such requirements at a committee meeting Thursday night.
They voted 3-2, with councilors Bettina A. Chadbourne, Terry M. Clark and Mitchell H. Greenwald in favor. Councilors Carl B. Jacobs and Thomas F. Powers dissented.
The discussion follows a proposal from Clark in June to adopt a policy similar to the one in Nashua, which requires political committees to register with the city and candidates to report all expenditures and contributions to the clerk’s office. Contributions over $10 must have the name and address of the campaign contributor, according to the ordinance.
At the June 13 finance, organization and personnel committee meeting, Clark said that rules like these provide transparency, promote open and fair elections, inform voters about whose money is financing a candidate, and deter “actual or perceived corruption.” He added that he hoped to see a policy enacted before November’s city elections.
But City Clerk Patricia A. Little told the committee Thursday that this can’t be done by then.
After the committee sent Clark’s proposal to staff for review last month, Little said she researched Nashua and four other cities with requirements for campaign finance reporting: Portsmouth, Manchester, Dover and Concord.
“Of all those communities, there’s not a single community that has an ideal campaign finance ordinance, in my opinion,” she said.
She broke down the requirements in other municipalities into sections, such as who is subject to the requirements, and the contribution and expenditure thresholds that trigger the reporting mandate. She proposed that councilors pick what they like from each ordinance, which would give staff direction in drafting one for Keene.
Lower thresholds, Little said, would increase the burden on both her office and on the candidates.
Clark made a motion that staff draft an ordinance with the following conditions:
It would apply only to mayoral candidates.
Once a candidate reaches $1,000 in total contributions or expenditures, they would then have to report anything over $50. (Clark originally suggested a $25 threshold but later increased it.)
The reporting period would begin with the prior municipal election, “because then nobody can play games about, ‘Well, I haven’t announced yet, and I’m gonna wait until I announce,’ ” he said.
Deadlines for reports would align with Nashua’s policy: 20 days prior to the city election and again by Dec. 1 after the election, along with some additional requirements for mayoral primaries and special elections.
Lastly, Clark asserted there shouldn’t be any enforcement or penalty language in the ordinance, arguing that “public exposure” would do that job.
“The only reason that I want this is because I think the public has a right to know where people are getting their money and what they’re spending. Simple as that,” Clark said. “I don’t wanna punish anybody.”
But this issue — who would enforce the ordinance or investigate violations — dominated the discussion Thursday night. Little stressed to the committee that she doesn’t want her office to be involved, since she could face an uncomfortable situation of investigating a future boss.
Almost none of the other communities stipulated in their ordinances how enforcement would be handled, she noted, though they all mentioned fines for violations. Portsmouth uses an ethics board to investigate potential violations, and a few other municipalities stipulate that candidates may not take their office until they comply with reporting requirements.
Clark suggested adopting that idea, but City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins cautioned that he couldn’t find anything in state law that gives a municipality the authority to deny someone their elected office. He urged councilors to think about the enforcement piece and how that would be handled.
Throughout Thursday’s discussion, Clark said several times that he wants to keep the ordinance as simple as possible.
Other councilors, though, had several logistical questions about the fine details. Greenwald, a mayoral candidate, asked about what constitutes a contribution.
“So if, I don’t know, Tom [Powers] decides to take me out to lunch, is that a contribution?” Greenwald asked.
Little referenced a state definition, though Mullins said the Secretary of State’s Office advised against following its reporting requirements for state elections too closely.
While Clark said contributions could be limited to monetary gifts, Jacobs posed a situation in which someone gives a candidate signs and said that could be considered a contribution.
Jacobs added that the $1,000 trigger seems too high to accomplish the goal of transparency.
“I’m not sure I wanna do this, but let’s do this all out in the open, and, you know, there’s nothing magic about $1,000 in that regard,” he said.
He tried to amend the motion to lower that threshold to $50 in cumulative contributions or expenditures, at which point a candidate would have to report all expenses and receipts, but the amendment died when no councilor seconded it.
Mullins noted that the councilors could consider another option: a voluntary cap. When residents declare their candidacy to the clerk’s office, he explained, they could sign a pledge not to spend or receive more than a specified amount.
Though Clark said he doesn’t think any requirements should go beyond mayoral candidates since Keene is a small city where councilors don’t spend much money on campaigns, Powers disagreed.
While noting that he was undecided on whether a policy should be adopted, Powers said, “As a councilor, I shouldn’t be any different than the mayor, because we’re all getting elected to represent everybody here.”
Meanwhile, Chadbourne said she has mixed feelings on the matter but voted yes to let the full council discuss it next week.
Though saying she’s on board with the goal of making elections more transparent, Chadbourne expressed concerns that stringent reporting requirements could discourage people from participating in local government, which already sees sparse community involvement.
And any campaign finance ordinance needs consequences to be effective, she argued.
Councilors debated the merits of finance reporting for 45 minutes. But near the end of the meeting, Jacobs said any decision on such a proposal should boil down to one question: “Does this bring us better government?”