Sabin's subterfuge in the race for mayor has roots in rigged city government | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sabin's subterfuge in the race for mayor has roots in rigged city government

Posted By on Thu, Aug 10, 2017 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge SUBTERFUGE: Warwick Sabin says he's seeking money to "explore" a race for mayor. A complaint contends it's just a way around the city's narrow window for actual campaign fund-raising.
  • SUBTERFUGE: Warwick Sabin says he's seeking money to "explore" a race for mayor. A complaint contends it's just a way around the city's narrow window for actual campaign fund-raising.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Eric Besson reports that an ethics complaint has been filed saying that the exploratory committee Rep. Warwick Sabin created to prepare for a run for Little Rock mayor was a subterfuge to avoid the city ordinance that doesn't allow campaign fundraising to begin until five months before the November 2018 election.

Of course it is a subterfuge. That doesn't necessarily mean it's illegal.

City Attorney Tom Carpenter (and perhaps also the state Ethics Commission, where initial complaints are anonymous)  is reviewing whether state law that allows for exploratory committees to operate farther in advance somehow overrides the city ordinance.

The issue highlights (and I don't mean to say it gives a pass to Sabin, a former colleague at the Arkansas Times) the way in which Little Rock city government is rigged.

As I've written tirelessly and tiresomely, our bastardized government (manager/mayor) was structured to give control to, for sake of simplicity, the chamber of commerce. It takes a heap of money to run citywide, as the mayor and three at-large members of the 10-member Board must do. As consequence, it's a rare thing when the candidate favored by the big money crowd doesn't win those seats. Together with a couple of directors from silk stocking wards, these citywide players control most big city decisions. Chamber wants $22 million for the tech park dream of one of its leaders? Done. Chamber wants a $300,000 taxpayer subsidy for its executive payroll? Done. Chamber wants a wider concrete ditch through downtown? Done. Chamber wants the majority black school board ousted? No complaints from the City Board. The favors are returned election time.

An insurgent has only five months to raise money for a citywide race under the city ordinance. (Six, if you count the month after the election, when losers stand a fat chance of raising any more money.)

This ordinance is a powerful aid to incumbents. See Mayor Mark Stodola, who's currently sitting on $78,000 carried over from his last (unchallenged) race for mayor. He could have carried over $160,000 (a limit pegged to his salary) if he'd only known then that several upstarts were thinking about challenging his leadership in 2018.

Sabin has come up with a scheme that he insists is legal to level the playing field, the exploratory committee, which can turn over money to his "real" campaign when June 1 rolls around. The D-G article today doesn't lay out the details of a solid legal case for Sabin's approach, but I have some sympathy for those seeking a way around the artificial, pro-incumbent, pro-business lobby restriction that now exists. Perhaps the City Board should change the law to conform with state rules, which allow even judges a year to raise money. CORRECTION: Judicial candidates may start raising money six months before the first election in May, which is a year before a runoff, if required. Other candidates for state office can begin raising money two years in advance.

Side note: Independent expenditures are fully legal whenever and in any amount. A well-heeled type could, for example, decide to spend some money printing up inner city redeveloper Paul Dodd's blistering indictment of city code enforcement in the Democrat-Gazette today and mass mail it a few times to city voters, along with a plea for a change in city government or elected leadership. You could, say, run an unflattering picture of the mayor on this mailout.

I think again of Luke Skrable, the pesky gadfly from Southwest Little Rock, whose years of complaints of city neglect finally became so heated that the city banned him from City Board meetings and all city property, in clear violation of the First Amendment. Even in the face of a federal judge's ruling that the ban was unconstitutional, the almost three years) of good behavior and THEN it reserves the right to boot him again for ANY violation of city "policy," including presumably the three-minute time limit for public remarks before the City Board.

You can see where someone might be tempted to devise a subterfuge to be heard in Little Rock.

PS: Coincidentally, my column in this week's Times is about the race for mayor.




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