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Sue Lani Madsen: Mailer tests transparency law

City Council President Ben Stuckart speaks during a press event announcing his candidacy for Mayor of Spokane on Friday, April 13, 2018, at McKinley School in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
City Council President Ben Stuckart speaks during a press event announcing his candidacy for Mayor of Spokane on Friday, April 13, 2018, at McKinley School in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Less than a month old and the Spokane fair elections ordinance has already drawn fire. The target is its chief proponent, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart.

Mayor David Condon originally vetoed the ordinance, concerned about adding layers to the complex state reporting system plus the cost of monitoring compliance. In a January 2018 opinion piece, Stuckart made the case for overriding the veto. The City Council overrode the mayor’s veto 6-1 that month. “Citizens deserve a transparent political system that values participation,” wrote Stuckart.

He probably didn’t mean the kind of participation practiced by Glen Morgan in his one-man campaign to reform campaign finance laws. Morgan filed two complaints with the Public Disclosure Commission on Jan. 30.

The PDC complaints focus on a Jan. 18 mailer promoting passage of City of Spokane Proposition 1, paid for by an ad hoc political committee named Yes for Public Safety. Prop 1 asks voters to authorize a $5.8 million-a-year levy for enhanced police and fire services. Not surprisingly, Yes for Public Safety has been funded by the Spokane Police Guild and Spokane Firefighters Union.

There’s nothing wrong with police and firefighters funding a PAC to support a public safety levy. Each organization contributed $30,000 on Jan. 4, according to PDC filings. The only other donor is McDaniel Projects, listed as providing in-kind services valued at $1,000 for campaign consulting.

Yes for Public Safety reported a few minor expenditures for yard-sign design, yard signs and campaign literature in January. Two large expenses were $9,000 to FUSE Washington in Seattle to “provide strategic services using social media,” and $22,500 to Lawton Printing for printing and mailing “approximately 30,000 pieces” of a more old-fashioned media – postcards.

The postcard design triggered the complaints. The 4- by 6-inch mailer prominently features Stuckart’s picture with a statement supporting Prop 1 printed in the largest typeface on the postcard, overlaid on a stock photo backdrop of firefighters. On the side are logos of four major groups also endorsing Prop 1. The lettering along the bottom is so small it requires a magnifying glass to read the required “paid for by” and the incomplete donor list.

But unreadable fine print is not the problem and not all complaints are filed by Morgan. In a 2016 PDC case in Snohomish County, judicial candidate Cindy Larsen was found guilty of “failing to disclose expenditures by A Safer Snohomish County for the committee’s mailing as in-kind contributions.” The commission also pointed out problems with key individuals involved in both campaigns. A second complaint alleged the value of the in-kind contribution exceeded the individual contribution limit. The mailing included two photographs of Larsen and a quote in support of that year’s Snohomish County Prop 1.

Morgan’s complaint alleges Stuckart failed to report the mailer featuring his photo and quote as an in-kind contribution to his campaign for mayor. The value of the mailer also exceeds the Spokane fair elections ordinance limit of $500.

Stuckart’s reaction to an emailed question about the recent PDC complaint was swift. He pointed out it’s his job to support public safety as council president. As the author of Prop 1, of course he supports it and “supporting an initiative on the ballot in February does not violate any public disclosure commission rules or laws. There is no similar case.”

He might be right. We’re still six months out from the primary election date for mayor. The commission ruling in Snohomish County noted the mailer featuring Larsen occurred within 60 days of her election. If the commission investigation of the Stuckart complaint decides timing is critical to declaring the mailer an in-kind contribution, the whole complaint may be dismissed without a fine.

It still looks the opposite of transparent, especially when two campaigns share a treasurer. And when the Spokane firefighters have already endorsed and maxed out contributions to Stuckart’s mayoral campaign. And when the campaign consultant for Yes for Public Safety is Adam McDaniel, doing business as McDaniel Projects. McDaniel is a city employee and Stuckart’s legislative assistant, the one who did the research justifying the $500 campaign contribution limit in the Spokane fair elections ordinance.

Whether upheld or not, PDC complaints do shine sunlight into the process. Yes for Public Safety reported $26,277.47 on hand as of Jan. 22. More than a few citizens will be watching to see where it goes.