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The Journal Gazette

  • Crawford

  • Arp

Sunday, November 12, 2017 1:00 am

Ordinance would limit donors' influence

John Crawford and Jason Arp

Competitive bidding is required by Indiana law in awarding construction contracts or purchasing materials such as a ton of salt. Strangely enough, competitive bidding is not required in awarding contracts for professional services such as engineering, legal or architectural. These contracts can be worth millions of dollars.

The Indiana state campaign law limitation on corporate contributions is $2,000 apportioned in any manner among all candidates for county, local and school board offices. There is, however, no limit on the amount a corporation officer, spouse of an owner, or employees of any corporation or other business entity seeking a professional service contract can contribute.

This allows multiple contributions from multiple people from a business entity to be aggregated over a four-year election cycle into tens of thousands of dollars.

A review of the contributions to mayoral incumbents of both parties reveals many large-dollar contributions like these.

In the review of the last few campaign cycles, this has totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars and can amount to half or more of the total dollars raised by incumbent mayors.

There is no proof these donations have led directly to the awarding of any contract. However, the entities that have given large aggregate sums have gotten the majority of professional-service contracts.

This gives the appearance of impropriety.

The primary purpose of business entities is to generate profits. Many of these business entities, including spouses, officers and employees (often living in other states) are giving aggregate sums of tens of thousands of dollars while competing for municipal contracts. It strains credulity to think they don't believe they are receiving greater access or some other advantage from these campaign contributions.

City Council took action in 2012 to pass the Competitive Sealed Proposals Ordinance, requiring a bidding process for professional-service contracts. Fort Wayne is somewhat unique in Indiana in requiring a competitive process for such contracts. This has helped get better prices and better contracts than before but still does not require the low-cost bidder to earn the contract due to intangibles. Even after passing this ordinance, large campaign contributions continued.

Campaign contributions are free speech as defined legally in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Limitations on campaign contributions are governed by state law. City Council does not have the power to prohibit or restrict any contribution, nor does the body want to limit anyone's ability to speak freely.

However, rulings in multiple jurisdictions have upheld ordinances prohibiting or placing limits on campaign contributions to municipal candidates when making decisions on awarding contracts. These are often referred to as “pay to play” ordinances. Court decisions in Connecticut, Hawaii and Pennsylvania have ruled in favor of such ordinances as long as they “are closely tailored to sufficiently important interests” such as avoiding the appearance of impropriety. We are co-sponsoring such an ordinance.

Anyone or any business entity still can give any amount they wish to any elected official. However, if the aggregate of the contributions exceeds $2,000 per calendar year, the ordinance would prohibit them from seeking contracts with the city. Over a four-year election cycle, they could still give $2,000 a year for a total of $8,000. If the spouses of owners of engineering companies who live in other states have a burning interest in Fort Wayne's mayoral election, they can still indulge their civic interest to this level.

But this ordinance would prohibit aggregation of large sums in the tens of thousands of dollars. This ordinance would reduce the appearance of impropriety.

We believe this ordinance is important. There is great division in the country now and more distrust in our institutions than ever before. The Pew Research Center reports that public trust in the federal government is near historic lows. Only 20 percent of citizens trust the government in Washington, D.C., to do what is right “almost always” or “most of the time.”

Citizens' trust in local government is higher than that, but we need to keep citizens' faith in their government as high as possible.

If we can reduce the possible effect of money in politics and the appearance of impropriety, we believe this will foster a higher level of trust in local government.

Republican John Crawford is an at-large member of Fort Wayne City Council. Jason Arp, also a Republican, represents the 4th District.