January 15, 2016 was the deadline for the latest financial reports for the 2015 campaign for Mayor and Council in Rockville, which covers the week before the November 3 election through the end of the year. Although this includes the hottest period of the campaign, it’s also assumed to be the quietest financially because most contributions and expenses have already been made. For the 2015 campaign, however, that short period represented 19 percent of the revenues and 38 percent of the expenditures so it wasn’t a fallow period.
More than $17,000 in contributions arrived in candidates’ bank accounts after October 26, including last-minute donations between candidates and from planning commissioners, creating a few more connections that weren’t apparent earlier. Expenses exceeded $60,000, most of it concentrated in the mayoral race between Bridget Newton and Sima Osdoby and the council campaign of Richard Gottfried. Gottfried spent an additional $9,715 for a campaign total of nearly $50,000—by comparison, the other Council candidates spent an average of $6,812 and mayoral candidates averaged $25,416.
For the 2015 Mayor and Council race, the eleven candidates raised $88,615 and spent $161,550 in total. The averages in this election are thrown off by Gottfried’s extraordinary campaign, so if we exclude him and the mayoral race (which is always much higher), the average amount raised by Council candidates was $5,277 and the average amount spent was $6,821, which means that candidates plowed about $1,500 of their own monies into their campaigns on average. Will this affect who’s willing and able to run for public office in Rockville?
This analysis, however, is incomplete because Patrick Schoof, candidate for Council, has not submitted his last campaign report, which was due three weeks ago. His campaign was financially the weakest and he wasn’t elected, but in the final weeks of the election, the outcome was uncertain, especially because he had the support of some key community leaders, including Mayor Bridget Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg. At this point, his campaign is accumulating fines of $10 per day and in another week, the Board of Supervisors of Elections begins a process to ban the candidate from public office for eight years (Section 8-83 of the City Code).
The campaign finance reports also reveal several holes in the process that could be easily exploited by unscrupulous candidates. For example, a candidate could intentionally file an incomplete or inaccurate financial report, wait to be notified of the error by the Board of Supervisors of Elections, then have 30 days to submit a revised report without any penalties (Section 8-83 of the City Code). Under the current City Code, a deceitful candidate can endlessly repeat this cycle to hide the true nature of his or her campaign without any significant repercussions. Indeed, while the campaign must retain its financial records for two years, there’s no provision that they can be inspected or audited by the Board of Supervisors of Elections to verify the accuracy of the financial reports (Section 8-76 of the City Code).
Although I don’t suspect anyone in the recent Mayor and Council race of practicing this type of deception, most candidates filed amendments to the financial reports, sometimes months after the deadline and often requiring two or more amendments. This appears to be the result of many causes, but it needs to be fixed so that the voters have reliable information about the candidates running for office. The Board of Supervisors of Elections made significant improvements to the instructions and forms from 2013, but obviously, there are still problems and these documents once again deserve a thorough review after an analysis of errors (most significantly recording in-kind contributions as expenses). There’s something wrong if three candidates who hold either an MBA (Beryl Feinberg and Patrick Schoof) or are a CPA (Richard Gottfried) all had to correct their financial reports several times. But it’s not just about the forms—candidates made obvious mistakes as well, such as failing to carry a number correctly from one report to another or leaving information blank. These are errors that the Board of Supervisors of Elections could quickly identify and candidates should quickly resolve. Finally, inaccurate and incomplete reports need to be identified on the city website, otherwise the public will assume they are reliable. Currently, the latest campaign finance reports for October 26 for Bridget Newton and Beryl Feinberg contain errors but haven’t been identified as “incomplete” or “awaiting amendment.”
Finally, the management of the election suffered from insufficient staff, a problem that was recognized more than a year before the election. City elections are managed by the City Clerk’s office and overseen by a voluntary Board of Supervisors of Elections. Without sufficient staff, errors are bound to happen and in elections, they can have serious consequences. The campaign finance reports, for example, had different deadlines and reporting periods, creating confusion and resulting in errors that carried over to the reports that followed. Despite the importance of elections to the governance of the city, the Mayor and Council has made little progress since August 2014 to hire a City Clerk to manage the elections (among many other responsibilities). This position reports directly to the Mayor and Council so it’s fully their responsibility, and yet, they can’t manage to get the job done. It doesn’t look like anything will change soon. Since the November 3 election, the City Clerk’s position hasn’t appeared on their agendas. Perhaps they’re waiting for the two-year anniversary in August or the next election in 2019?