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Wednesday, December 13, 2017 1:00 am

Council defeats pay-to-play veto

Mayor, Barranda say campaign measure's risks ignored

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

In a terse 6-3 vote Tuesday, the Fort Wayne City Council narrowly overrode Mayor Tom Henry's veto of a pay-to-play ordinance that city officials say likely runs afoul of state and federal law.

The ordinance in question limits corporate campaign contributions to elected city officials to $2,000 per calendar year. Donations from any employee who owns more than 7.5 percent of a firm, as well as donations from that employee's spouse or live-in children, would count to ward that limit. Any firm that exceeds that limit would be barred from bidding on city contracts.

“We're disappointed by City Council's vote to override Mayor Henry's veto. Last week, the mayor showed a willingness and interest in having further discussions to improve the ordinance to address local campaign finance protocols, policies and procedures,” mayoral spokesman John Perlich said in a statement late Tuesday.

“We continue to have concerns about the constitutionality of this ordinance. We also believe it violates state law and doesn't protect First Amendment rights.”

It also remains unclear how the ordinance will be enforced, said Perlich, who added that there is no proof of “past or current activities that would warrant council's passage of the ordinance in its current form.”

Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, has said enforcement will come in the form of an affidavit signed by firms that place bids on city contracts. The affidavit will certify the firm has not crossed the ordinance's threshold. Crawford is one of the ordinance's co-sponsors, along with Jason Arp, R-4th.

Veto overrides require approval of two-thirds of City Council, or six votes, to pass. Arp and Crawford were joined by Councilmen Russ Jehl, R-2nd, Tom Didier, R-3rd, Paul Ensley, R-4th, and Tom Freistroffer, R-4th, in overriding Henry's veto.

Councilmen Michael Barranda, R-at large, Glynn Hines, D-6th, and Geoff Paddock, D-5th, voted against the override. The vote was identical to a Nov. 21 preliminary vote on the proposal.

Henry and Barranda made two attempts to modify the bill before Tuesday's vote. Last week, Henry proposed returning the bill to the council for further review to try to avoid the potential legal challenges that attorneys representing the city say are likely. The council did not take Henry up on his offer.

Similarly, Barranda tried to introduce a supplemental bill Tuesday to add an extra layer of protection for the city if a court decided to block implementation of the ordinance pending a legal challenge. The council voted 4-5 against introducing Barranda's bill. Barranda described that vote as hypocritical in light of council action last month on the purchase agreement for the North River property.

Barranda said he attempted then to delay introduction of the purchase agreement but was told it was highly unusual to vote against introducing a bill. Barranda said other councilmen told him introduction was somewhat of a formality and that the merits of a bill would be discussed at the appropriate time.

“That opportunity to even have that discussion was eliminated tonight because five councilmen decided to use the highly unusual process of voting against introduction to eliminate the opportunity to have that discussion,” Barranda said, thanking Jehl as the only other councilman to support introduction Tuesday.

“I'm severely disappointed not only that it happened but that it happened without any of them contacting me and asking about the substance of the bill.”

Barranda said he agrees with city lawyers that there is a good chance the ordinance is invalid and will be challenged in court. He said if there had been an opportunity to discuss his bill, he thinks his fellow councilmen would have found that it takes steps to prevent campaign donations from flowing freely in the event of court intervention.

“We would have had the opportunity to discuss what the goals of it were, but there were some folks that were just singularly focused on what they're trying to do,” Barranda said.

Tensions ran high among some of the council members during Tuesday's discussion and vote, with Didier at times appearing visibly upset.

“I'm not a lawyer. I'm glad you're a lawyer, I didn't go to school to be a lawyer,” Didier said to Barranda. “But I know one thing. The good Lord gave me good judgment and he gave me wisdom to do the right things. Right now, I know you're frustrated and I apologize for that, Michael, but I have to use good wisdom and good judgment on this, particularly because of what Attorney (Joe) Bonahoom has put forward for us.”

Didier said he doesn't think Barranda's proposal was invalid. However, he said the amount of time already spent debating the ordinance as written outweighed the potential merits of Barranda's bill. It wasn't the right time, Didier said.

“If something happens in the future, my mother always said patience is a virtue,” Didier said. “And by golly, maybe if you have a little patience, something will happen in the future.”

Proponents of the ordinance sponsored by Crawford and Arp argued that it does not limit how much a donor or company can give to an elected official's campaign; it simply bars them from bidding on city contracts if total donations exceed the state's $2,000 annual limit on corporate campaign contributions to local elections. The ordinance was necessary, Crawford and Arp argued, to eliminate the appearance of impropriety in city government.

Explaining his vote to override Henry's veto, Crawford said large contributions from vendors such as law firms, engineering firms and architecture firms who do a lot of business with the city look bad to citizens. Crawford also acknowledged that the bill he co-sponsored is not flawless, and he denied claims that the ordinance is an example of partisan politics.

“Our ordinance is not perfect and cannot stop all money influence in government. But it will help and also will restore more of the citizens' faith that city government contracting is not geared to insiders and crony capitalism,” Crawford said. “The alternative is to throw up our hands, saying we cannot do anything, it might not be legal and it's not perfect, it's hopeless. But seeing a problem and not trying to do your best to fix what you can by declaring it hopeless is just a form of cowardice.”

The ordinance will take effect Jan. 1.

dgong@jg.net