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City attorney says campaign contribution limits unenforceable

Friday, August 22, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Austin’s City Attorney believes that the city charter’s limits on campaign contributions and expenditures are currently unenforceable.


In addition, City Attorney David Smith has issued a written opinion stating that there are currently no restrictions on a City Council candidate’s use of funds raised for a previous, non-Council race. If that were true, it would allow a statewide candidate—such as Carole Keeton Strayhorn—to use money she raised in her unsuccessful bid for governor in a campaign for mayor.


Strayhorn’s most recent campaign finance report shows that as of June 30 she still had more than $100,000. Strayhorn listed as “unknown” the office she is seeking but she has reportedly been soliciting advice from friends and consultants regarding her chances of winning such an election.


In 1997, voters approved a charter amendment limiting campaign contributions to $100 per person. That limit was raised to $300 in 2002 with a provision to increase that amount pegged to the Consumer Price Index.


However, there is no provision for enforcement of the charter provision related to contribution limits. According to Smith, “fines and penalties can be established by simply passing an appropriate ordinance.”


Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken, who asked for Smith’s opinion after hearing that the current law contains no enforcement provisions, says he wants to put an item on next week’s Council agenda to start the process of plugging some of the loopholes in the ordinance.


“We are two and a half to three months away from the next round of campaigns and it appears that unless we act promptly we will knowingly enter this campaign season without an enforceable ethics ordinance,” McCracken said. “I can’t believe that is acceptable.”


McCracken told In Fact Daily he wants to get the city Ethics Commission “to see how we can comprehensively ensure that the will of the voters is carried out.”


In his memo, Smith wrote, “We believe that state election law permits the use of unexpended contributions to future campaigns or even the donation of the funds to the campaign of another candidate. On questions of state election law, however, we defer to the Secretary of State . . . If the question is broad enough to include the issue of whether the city could place restrictions on a candidate’s use of such funds, the answer is maybe, based on our research so far.”


McCracken and Council Member Lee Leffingwell are both eyeing a run for Mayor in 2009. Former Council Members Bill Spelman and Jackie Goodman have also indicated a strong interest in the race.

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