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One city limits, not bans, donations

– While Fort Wayne legislators debate the legality of banning political contributions of city contractors, a similar law in southern Indiana has been in force for years without challenge.

In 2006, the Jeffersonville City Council approved an ordinance limiting how much city contractors could give to municipal candidates and elected officials. Unlike the Fort Wayne proposal, however, the law does not prohibit such political gifts.

Jeffersonville Councilman Keith Fetz, D-3rd, championed the proposal after noticing a number of no-bid contracts awarded to companies who made political contributions to the mayor at the time.

“We were all concerned it was sending the improper message that campaign contributions equal government contracts,” he said.

The law broadly addresses many areas of ethics, but Section 2.14 deals with contributions to elected officials. It essentially limits contractors who have done business in the preceding four years or are seeking a city contract from donating more than $200 to a political candidate in a year.

The Fort Wayne bill would prohibit a company, company owner, company owner spouse, company subcontractor, subcontractor owner or subcontractor owner spouse from doing business with the city if that person made political donations to city candidates or elected officials in the previous year.

Larry Wilder, chief litigation counsel for Jeffersonville Mayor Tom Galligan, helped write the bill in 2006 when he also worked for the council. He said giving money to candidates is viewed as a form of free speech, so the city was careful not to ban political gifts outright. The council tried to determine what level of contribution would still be significant to a local race but could not finance it completely, he said.

In the city of nearly 45,000 people, Wilder said, council races can cost as little as $5,000 while mayoral candidates can spend up to $100,000. Fort Wayne’s mayoral race is expected to cost up to $1 million this year.

Wilder said he would be concerned the Fort Wayne law would be challenged because it prohibits all political donations by contractors.

Jeffersonville worked under the premise that the city could pass a law adding restrictions to state law but could not reduce state restrictions. He compared it to the fact cities can lower speed limits on state highways within their limits.

Fort Wayne Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd, said he understood the law was unchallenged in Jeffersonville, but he still wanted an attorney general opinion on Fort Wayne’s bill.

“Just because Jeffersonville did it doesn’t mean that it’s legal,” he said.

Jeffersonville Councilman Ed Zastawny, R-2nd, said he voted against the law because of concerns over its legality. While the law has yet to be challenged, he said he still holds some of those concerns.

Both Democratic mayoral candidates in 2007 were cited for minor violations, Fetz said, and both returned the contributions. No violations have been reported yet this year, he said.

Fetz said the law was well received by residents and contractors for taking the stand. While he said the law wouldn’t prohibit money from finding its way into races, he said it does create parameters for how officials are supposed to act.

“A candidate’s morals have to still apply to whether they want to skirt the ordinance and create ways around the law,” he said.