Two of the three candidates who split the money may not be entitled, city rules are in question
Investigative Report by Ken Martin
The Austin City Clerk deemed three candidates in the City Council runoffs eligible for equal shares of the $83,965.74 held in the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund, which provides partial public support for qualifying candidates. The Fund is built through lobbyist registration fees, donations, money collected for violations of campaign contracts, and candidate filing fees.
District 3 candidates (and siblings) Susana Almanza and Sabino Renteria and District 7 candidate Leslie Pool were notified November 14 they would each get checks for $27,988.58, City Clerk Jannette Goodall told The Austin Bulldog. They picked up the checks between November 18 and 21, she said.
None of the other candidates involved in runoffs for mayor and council signed the voluntary Austin Fair Campaign Contract.
Almanza and Renteria, however, may not have been entitled to those funds because they signed the Austin Fair Campaign Contract too late, according to one City Code provision.
To be eligible for a share of the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Fund, City Code Section 2-2-11 requires that candidates must sign the Austin Fair Campaign Contract agreeing to abide by limitations on contributions and expenditures and to participate in a series of candidate forums.
Section 2-2-11(B) states “A candidate must personally sign the campaign contract the earlier of (emphasis added):
(1) 30 days after he or she becomes a candidate under the Texas Election Code; or
(2) the date the candidate files for a place on the ballot.
Goodall said she had consulted with the Law Department and Ethics Review Commission and followed the same procedure used in past elections to disburse money to these three candidates based on the dates they filed for a place on the ballot.
“We had always used the ballot application deadline as a trigger and we kept with that date as well for this election,” Goodall said.
Tradition trumped City Code
The basic reasoning behind the requirement to sign the Austin Fair Campaign Contract within 30 days of becoming a candidate is to prevent gaming the system.
A candidate who waits to sign the Austin Fair Campaign Contract until after at least one opponent does not do so would then be able to publish the required disclosure of compliance per City Code Section 2-2-14, exceed the required contribution and expenditure limits, and, if in a runoff, be eligible to receive Fair Campaign Funds.
Had the city followed the Code and considered a candidate qualified for these funds based on having signed the Fair Campaign Contract within 30 days of becoming a candidate under provisions of the Texas Election Code, Almanza and Renteria would not have gotten funding.
Texas Election Code Section 251.001 defines a candidate as “a person who knowingly and willingly takes affirmative action for the purpose of gaining nomination or election to public office. Among the affirmative actions listed are: filing the appointment of a campaign treasurer, filing application for a place on the ballot, or making a public announcement of a definite intent to run for office.
Both Almanza and Renteria signed the contract more than 30 days after appointing a campaign treasurer, which under the Texas Election Code officially made them candidates.
Almanza appointed a treasurer March 31 and signed the contract 59 days later on May 29. (The contract begins on page 2, behind her Application for a Place on the Ballot filed July 21.)
Renteria appointed a treasurer May 13 and signed the contract 78 days later on July 30. (The contract beings on page 2, behind the Application for a Place on the Ballot he filed the same day.)
In addition, Almanza made a public announcement of her candidacy in January. She emphasized that in a November 18 Austin American-Statesman article about the fact that she and her brother were running for the same seat on the council. “I announced in January. He announced in May,” Almanza stated. “I’m not running against my brother. He’s running against me.”
Pool, on the other hand, appointed a treasurer July 10 and signed the contract 29 days later on August 8. (The contract begins on page 2, behind the Application for a Place on the Ballot she filed the same day.) Thus she is in the only candidate to receive Fair Campaign Funds who signed the contact within 30 days of appointing a treasurer.
A search of articles posted on the Austin District 7 website indicates that Pool did not announce her candidacy until August 26, which is 18 days after signing the contract.
Assistant City Attorney Cynthia Tom, one of the city staff members who serve the city’s Ethics Review Commission, declined to comment and referred our inquiry to the Public Information Office.
Senior Public Information Specialist Alicia Dean said that the City Clerk’s office considered runoff candidates to be qualified for a share of the Fair Campaign Fund if they signed the contract by the time they filed for a place on the ballot.
Changes may be made for future
Goodall said that for future elections she would like to make changes in how decisions are made for distributing the Fair Campaign Funds.
She noted that a candidates might file the appointment of a campaign treasurer far in advance of an election. “I’m not sure that’s the best indicator of when someone is going to become a candidate. The contract is tied more to the election itself.”
Goodall has a point about appointment of a campaign treasurer not always being an indication a person is actually going to run for election. In fact, 10 people appointed campaign treasurers this year and then failed to file an application for a place on the ballot, including: Stephen Paul Fabian and Trevor William Titman for mayor; Miguel M. Ancira, Frank R. “Franko” Guajardo, and Martin Urbano Jr. for Place 3; Chelsea Elizabeth Brass, Xavier Hernandez, Manuel Alejandro Munoz, and Gabriel “Gabe” Rojas for District 4; and Josiah James Ingalls for District 7.
Goodall said, “I’d like to look at other dates we might use. My recommendation would be the date a candidate can begin collecting funds, which is within six months of the election date. That’s my opinion. It’s not been vetted by anyone or approved. It just raises questions that we’ve had in our office about the spirit of the Fair Campaign Fund as well as what the Code actually says.”
Another consideration is that incumbents don’t have to appoint a new campaign treasurer when running for reelection. So, would they be disqualified from receiving Fair Campaign Funds? “These are some of the questions we’re asking going forward,” Goodall said.
“For clarity—not only for the City Clerk’s office but for candidates—I hope we can find a better way to word what’s in the City Code to understand and logistically implement for the future.”
At this point, anyone wishing to question the validity of providing Fair Campaign Funds to Almanza and Renteria could file a complaint with the City Clerk’s office on the Ethics Review Commission Complaint Form. Goodall said her office will forward the complaints for consideration by the Commission.
Citizen raised issue
Dylan Tynan is a self-described software developer in Austin who also runs a website called Election Austin. He has posted numerous articles on the website as early as November 6 in which he concluded that only Leslie Pool should qualify for payment from the Fair Campaign Fund.
On November 17 he e-mailed the mayor and council members with his lengthy analysis that indicated the contracts signed by Almanza and Renteria were not valid, and that only Pool had signed the contract within the required timeframe. Hours later he forwarded that e-mail to Elections Clerk Ann Franklin in the City Clerk’s Office.
He was not aware that by the time he e-mailed city officials, candidates Almanza, Renteria and Pool already had been notified they would receive the Fair Campaign Funds.
Tynan told The Austin Bulldog that he did not receive a reply from anyone at the city, although he had talked to both Elections Clerk Franklin and Assistant City Attorney Tom well before sending e-mails.
“It’s not only unfair to Leslie Pool that she only gets one-third of the money, despite being the only person to follow the rules correctly,” Tynan said. “It’s also unfair to any other candidates that were aware of the 30-day rule and decided not to sign because they believed the law would not recognize their contract.”
At least one other candidate did, in fact, choose not sign the contract because of how the City Code was interpreted.
Political consultant Steven Rivas of The Rivas Group told The Austin Bulldog that he advised his client, District 3 candidate Shaun Ireland, “it was too late” to sign the Austin Fair Campaign Contract.
“That’s what I told him. I think we discussed it about the time the ballot applications had opened up and we noticed that others had turned in the (Austin Fair Campaign Contract) paperwork. We looked at the code and statutes and I told him we couldn’t. It was time to print signs and we had to decide whether there would be a disclaimer on our signs,” Rivas said. “I still believe we were correct in making that decision.”
Rivas said that Ireland, who is traveling and could not be reached in time for this story, is consulting with an attorney to address what action the city would take to rectify the situation.
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