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Friday, February 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Firefighters union deserved more than a scolding for campaign violations

The state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, concluded that two labor-backed political action committees violated the rules during the hotly contested Spokane mayoral race. Then it let them off without even a slap on the wrist.

The Oct. 17 complaints were filed against the Spokane Firefighters Union PAC and the Citizens for Liberty and Labor PAC, which is largely funded by the firefighters. The former group had failed to disclose a $67,000 cash-on-hand balance, and the latter had failed to properly disclose its top contributors in its political advertising.

Both PACs opposed Nadine Woodward in the mayoral race, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the race that Woodward eventually won.

A first offense might be let off with a warning, but this wasn’t the firefighters’ first brush with campaign finance trouble. In 2015, another PAC that got most of its money from the firefighters union failed to report $94,000 in spending. Two years later, that PAC was fined $7,000 for that violation.

Special-interest spending is a fact of life in today’s political campaigns, but there needs to at least be some transparency. At the most basic level, the electorate deserves to know who is funding what are often little more than political smear campaigns and what their interests in the outcome of the election are.

That’s especially true when the PACs can file under misleadingly innocuous names like “Citizens for Liberty and Labor PAC.” It could more accurately call itself the “Firefighters Union in Disguise PAC,” which is what the public would have known had the required disclosures been made.

These sorts of cases take time to process, almost always reaching conclusions long after the election is over. That is all the more reason to impose stiff penalties for violations so that PACs don’t think they can mislead voters until after it’s too late for getting caught to matter.

The firefighters PAC and its allies spent a lot of money attacking Woodward ($219,000 by the allied PAC) and a fair amount of money supporting her opponent in the race, City Council President Ben Stuckart. Their support for Stuckart isn’t all that surprising given that he helped win voter approval of a $5.8 million property tax increase that kept 30 firefighters in their jobs.

Citizens for Liberty and Labor ran ads saying Woodward would “put developers first and ignore us” and bring “Seattle sprawl and traffic to Spokane.” But voters should have the information necessary to put those attacks into context – namely that Stuckart and the firefighters union have an alliance dating back to his first run for council president in 2011.

In 2014, Stuckart was fined $250 by the city ethics commission for inappropriately sharing a confidential email from the city legal department with the president of the union. The email dealt with a lawsuit brought against the city by the union.

This election, Stuckart sided with the union in opposing Proposition 1, which will open the city’s collective bargaining negotiations to the public. That measure passed with more than 70 percent of the vote. It will bring some much-needed transparency to the collective bargaining process.

The Stuckart-firefighter alliance demonstrates why Proposition 1 was necessary. Given the tight and symbiotic relationship between the unions and some elected officials, the public will clearly be served by pulling negotiations out of the back rooms – negotiations that in the past have made Spokane’s firefighters the best paid in the state. At nearly $100,000 a year in salary, firefighters make more than three times the county’s per capita income.

More transparency is also needed in the realm of campaign finance. That’s the Public Disclosure Commission’s job – to enforce campaign finance laws and ensure public access to information about campaign contributions and expenditures.

The governor appoints the five PDC commissioners, and the current commission is stacked with political insiders from Olympia and the Puget Sound region. In allowing the transgressions of these political action committees to pass with barely more than stern words, they failed their duty.

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