As directed by the Little Rock City Board, City Attorney Tom Carpenter today sued for a declaratory judgment that Warwick Sabin and Frank Scott, candidates for Little Rock mayor, are violating a city ordinance by raising money for exploratory committees to run for mayor.
City ordinance prohibits fund-raising for city office sooner than five months before an election, with this election scheduled in November.
The state Ethics Commission, to which an ally of Mayor Mark Stodola complained about this fund-raising earlier, has said, however, that the exploratory committees are allowed by state law and declined to take action.
The suit names the Ethics Commission, Sabin, Scott and their exploratory committees.
By allowing Sabin and Scott to raise money, the lawsuit argues, that state is denying equal protection to incumbent officials who cannot raise money until June 1 and may not create an exploratory committee to raise money for an office he or she already holds It says the state Ethics Commission should be made to enforce the city ordinance and the judge should order appropriate equitable remedies.
Carpenter asks that the case, assigned to Judge Chris Piazza, be expedited.
It’s an exercise is gross hypocrisy. Mayor Mark Stodola is sitting in blatant violation of the same city ordinance by holding onto a $78,000 in contributions leftover from previous campaigns. By terms of the same 1997 ordinance the City Board wants Carpenter to enforce, Stodola should have refunded that money to contributors or distributed it to specified legal recipients, such as charities. Carpenter makes the convoluted argument that state law prohibits enforcement of this part of the ordinance, but not the part about a short fund-raising period.
Sabin and Scott’s committees are acknowledged end-runs around the fund-raising limit, passed as a good government measure in 1990 so as to discourage pay-to-play contributions to city officials timed with important votes. Stodola’s long flouting of the ordinance is just, well, flouting of the law.
It’s a mess. The ordinance needs to be fixed, or clarified, though the state controls municipal law and a legislative fix would likely have to be a precursor.
Sabin has raised about $120,000 according to his most recent report, Scott about $75,000.
Sabin issued a statement:
“The three-term incumbent mayor is utilizing taxpayer-funded government resources to sue his potential political challengers because he wants to maintain a rigged system instead of allowing a level playing field. Warwick Sabin’s exploratory efforts continue to build momentum and he is picking up more support every day, which is why the entrenched mayor and his cronies are so desperate to stop him. This is yet another example of why we need real change in Little Rock, and Warwick Sabin will continue pressing forward to offer new energy and new ideas for our city.”
Scott said he’d have a statement after he has a chance to read the lawsuit.
UPDATE: From Scott:
“I am disappointed in Mayor Stodola and his decision to proceed with costly litigation, particularly after the State Ethics Commission confirmed the validity of my exploratory committee back in October. Rather than focus on the rise in violent crime or stagnant job growth in Little Rock, Stodola seeks to obstruct the democratic process by attempting to prevent potential challengers from forming exploratory committees,” stated Frank Scott, Jr.
For months, Stodola and Carpenter have attempted to prevent the Scott exploratory committee from operating despite being validly registered with the Pulaski County Clerk’s Office. Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley also made it clear that he would not prosecute any exploratory committee under the provision of the City Code Stodola is seeking to enforce.
City Code and Arkansas law authorizing exploratory committees suggests that Little Rock residents considering municipal elected office can avail themselves of exploratory committees. Once formal campaigns are launched, they are then subject to the City Code’s restrictions on fundraising and the use of carryover funds from previous campaigns.
Also worth noting is that Mayor Stodola is seeking to improperly enforce one section of the City Code that would prevent the Scott exploratory committee from operating all while failing to comply with another section of the same City Code that prevents him from carrying over campaign funds from his 2014 campaign.
Scott continued, “Little Rock faces real challenges, and none of those challenges involve my exploratory committee, which has followed applicable state law. Despite Stodola’s desperate attempt, I remain encouraged by the broad-based support my exploratory committee has received across the city. We are exploring a run for mayor because Little Rock is in desperate need of bold leadership. Let’s embrace those who bring new ideas to the table rather than try to silence them in favor of the status quo. Dismissing this lawsuit and repealing the ordinance are the only way to ensure that every Little Rock voter has their voice heard as we approach another city election.”
On political points, it’s hard to see Stodola getting the win here if he tries to pin something on Sabin and Scott while using his own ill-gotten boodle. The
It occurs to me that Stodola could give his carryover to charity now, though that would be long past the ordinance deadline to do so, and say he’ll put himself on the same footing as he expects Sabin and Scott to follow. Given his devotion to causes of the business establishment and the freeway building industry, he can count on plenty of money pouring in.