Chelsea Boozer reports in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning that the Little Rock City Board has decided to go to court to resolve uncertainty about a city campaign finance ordinance.

The good-government ordinance which limits campaign fund-raising to five months before an election was intended to prevent special interests from contributing strategically to city board members (when important votes were pending.) Two challengers of Mayor Mark StodolaWarwick Sabin and Frank Scott –– decided that was too limiting and availed themselves of an apparent loophole — a state law that authorizes “exploratory committees” to raise money for two years before an election. There’s no difference in the money raised and how it’s spent in comparison with regular campaign committees.

Advertisement

Mayor Stodola wasn’t happy about it. And it DOES flout the will of citizens who encouraged the adoption of the ordinance. But he also is a hypocrite. The same ordinance prohibits him from using a $78,000 campaign carryover account he maintains. The ordinance says he was supposed to refund that money to donors or give it to charity. Stodola says state law overrode THAT part of the ordinance, but NOT the part of the ordinance that should prohibit early fund-raising by exploratory committees. The incumbent-protecting members of the city board naturally want to see the exploratory committees overruled because they might face one someday, too.

The state Ethics Commission has refused to get involved. It’s a city matter, it says. So the City Board decided to ask City Attorney Tom Carpenter to seek a declaratory judgment on what the law means, both as to early fund-raising and (thanks to Director Joan Adcock) Stodola’s war chest.

Advertisement

Nobody looks good in this. A legal challenge will do little more than cast a future cloud on the 2018 elections (and not incidentally force legal expenditures by Sabin and Scott, though not Stodola, who has Carpenter working for him for free).

If a legal case mounted by Carpenter can get resolved in 12 months, I’ll need smelling salts.

Advertisement

So what would have been a better alternative?

1) Repeal the ordinance. Stodola could spend his ill-gotten money. Sabin and Scott could spend their subterfuge-gotten money. Everybody else can raise money now.

2) Adopt a resolution expressing the city’s intent to ask the legislature for the necessary state law change to make clear that the city has the power to limit fund-raising (real or exploratory) to five months before the election and to prevent carryover funds (typically owing to contributions stuffed into accounts of unopposed politicians such as Stodola was). Re-adopt the ordinance after passage of that state law.

3) Get on with the 2018 campaigns.

Advertisement

Too late, I know. The wheels of justice will grind. Slowly.

UPDATE: Warwick Sabin distributed a statement later on the decision:

“Instead of working in a positive way to bring people together and solve problems — like Little Rock’s tragically high crime rate — our city leadership chooses to spend precious time and resources suing potential candidates to prevent them from exploring the possibility of running for office. It’s another example of the Mayor prioritizing his own political interests instead of implementing new ideas to bring needed change to our city.”