Smith: lack of Scottsdale election donation limits bolsters ‘dark money’ influence

The citizens of Tempe deserve credit for voting to preserve the integrity and transparency of their local elections.

David Smith

So too, their local elected officials deserve credit for bringing election issues to the public for guidance. Such interaction fosters respect and trust between citizens and their government.

One thing that creates mistrust among citizens is their suspicion elected officials may be swayed by large-dollar donors hoping to influence local elections. Most individual donors contribute directly to an individual’s campaign and disclose their identity for the public record.

Some large donors, however, contribute to a “charity,” which engages in political activity indirectly so donor names remain hidden from everyone — except candidates! In political circles, this type of donation is referred to as “dark money.”

Most citizens are not aware of changes our Arizona Legislators made to the rules governing contributions to candidates for local election. It started in 2013 when Legislators decided to honor their election promises to “tackle the issue of dark money head on!”

In their convoluted reasoning, however, dominant legislators and lobbyists argued the reason we had dark money was because well-intentioned and well-to-do donors were so severely limited by the small dollar donations then allowed.

Their solution for controlling dark money was starkly simple! In the spring of 2013, our state legislature passed H.B. 2593, hiking the maximum individual contribution limit 10-fold, to $5,000 from $488 (by 2018, the individual contribution limit has grown to $6,350.) The Legislature and governor declared the problem solved!

But the Tempe City Council vehemently disagreed!

First, Tempe took issue with the outlandish increase in individual donation maximums. In March 2016, they took Proposition 485 to their voters amending the Tempe City Charter to limit individual campaign contributions: $500 for any council candidate and $1,000 for any mayoral candidate.

An astounding 89 percent of Tempe voters approved the proposition! Seventeen months later, Governor Ducey, caught between respecting the law passed by the Legislature and protecting the rights of local citizens to govern their own elections, eventually signed the Tempe City Charter amendment.

I thought Tempe had a good idea. Like Tempe, we also need to foster transparency and maintain the public trust in city elections. So, at a council meeting last November, I made a motion that our Scottsdale City Council discuss and consider regulating campaign contributions in our local elections in a similar way.

My motion failed, with four members of Council refusing to discuss.

Then, earlier this month, Tempe elected officials and voters dealt with dark money the way it should have been addressed. Voters approved Proposition 403 requiring disclosure of “all original and intermediary sources” over $1,000 used to influence Tempe elections. 91 percent of voters approved! Phoenix and other valley cities are considering similar measures to take to their citizens.

Again, I thought this was a good idea.

So, last week I made a motion asking for a future council discussion of the newly passed Tempe “dark money” proposition. My motion failed again with four Councilmembers refusing to discuss.

Citizens may rightfully wonder why the Scottsdale City Council majority prefers not to discuss any change to the sky-high donation limits or why they won’t discuss putting any controls on unregulated “dark money” contributions.

Editor’s note: Mr. Smith is a resident of Scottsdale and member of Scottsdale City Council

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