Council Debates "Transparency" of Campaign Contributions

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014, 12:46 am
Alice Dreger

Image: Nathan Triplett and Susan Woods at City Council

At City Council’s work session last night, Council entered into a lengthy debate about how, if at all, it should work to make sure East Lansing citizens know from whom Councilmembers have taken campaign contributions. The issue came up in response to a proposed amendment to the Code of Ethics from Councilmember Ruth Beier.

Beier’s proposal called for Councilmembers to publicly disclose, at the Council table, when they are taking action on business that comes from a company whose owners or employees have donated campaign contributions to a Councilmember. Beier noted that the Ingham County website has campaign disclosures but that they are hard to find and even harder to review for pertinent information once found.

Councilmember Kathy Boyle offered an alternative proposal that removed language referring to a Councilmember’s potential “indirect economic interest,” and required disclosure of $100 or more from businesses, agents for businesses, or employees of businesses with business before Council before discussion and vote of the business. Beier said Boyle’s proposal was superior to her own and she would support it.

Mayor Pro Tem Diane Goddeeris said she would prefer that the disclosures of campaign contributions be limited to the City’s website, and not occur at meetings in real time. Goddeeris was concerned that if disclosures were to occur in conjunction with business before Council, citizens might think votes were being bought. She also worried that Councilmembers might not realize that someone who donated had business before Council. She indicated that she wanted people to elect Councilmembers on the basis of their ability to take the oath of office to put the citizens’ interests first and that citizens should trust those who took the oath.

Beier said she took Goddeeris’ points as important issues to consider and was willing to consider the idea of making the disclosures on the City website. Mayor Nathan Triplett suggested the City website could just include links to the appropriate PDFs of pages at the Ingham County website.

Goddeeris questioned why Beier was bringing this forward when there wasn’t any corruption known in East Lansing, but Beier said we don’t know if there is corruption going on and that transparency will help reduce the likelihood of corruption. Beier said, “I’m trying to prevent potential corruption.”

Boyle responded that transparency isn’t about prevention of corruption. Boyle said transparency is about preventing unwarranted inferences of corruption—in other words, it is about stopping people from suggesting someone is being inappropriately influenced. Beier argued with Boyle on this point, insisting that it is harder to be corrupt if you have to reveal your sources of funding.

Triplett said he thought the dialogue was a good one but worried that what Beier had drafted “does more to obscure than to illuminate individuals and interests who might be trying to influence Council.” He suggested full disclosure of donations from Political Action Committees (PACs) that have taken a stand on business before Council. He said that PACs could otherwise be used to hide influence, and gave as an example if the landlords in the City were to form a PAC and to support candidates who would push their interests. Beier supported Triplett’s suggestion that the wording be reworked to include disclosure about PAC donations.

Triplett asked how far back Councilmember disclosures would have to go in terms of campaign contributions, and whether they would include campaigns for other offices like School Board. Beier said she would support limiting the disclosure to campaigns for City Council and would support limiting it by some number of years.

Councilmember Susan Woods asked, “Why should we go down this rabbit hole?” She said she had not realized when she was taking money from developers during her campaign who they were because, she said, she was unfamliar with East Lansing politics. She said the money "has absolutely no influence on what I decide or what I look at and how I look forward."

Council ended the discussion by asking the City Attorney to take what was presented and discussed and to come up with a draft of what they could consider at a later work session.


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