by Matt Rosenberg September 14th, 2010
BACKGROUND: In 1972, Washington state voters approved Initiative 276 which established the Public Records Act, landmark open government legislation. The reforms included mechanisms for citizens to request and receive public records from all branches of government in the state with only certain limited exceptions. The act and subsequent reforms also required that some information be provided regardless of whether it was requested or not, and made freely available to the public; including campaign contributions, campaign spending, political lobbying and and advertising expenditures, and the financial interests of elected officials. I-276 also created a five-member bi-partisan body called the Public Disclosure Commission, to oversee compliance with the sweeping new public records act. To assure their impartiality, PDC commissioners may not hold elected office or engage in political activity.
The PDC’s Web site provides in-depth and overview information on campaign contributions and spending, lobbying, spending on political advertising and personal financial interests of elected officials.
TUTORIAL: HOW TO TRACK CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS IN LOCAL ELECTIONS
Let’s demonstrate the PDC’s tools applied to local government, by drilling down into a high-profile suburban mayoral election in the Seattle region.
From the PDC’s home, mouse-over the “Search the Database” tab in the top part of the page just under the masthead. Select “candidates” from the pull-down menu, then click on “local.” You should land here. Click on the column header “locality” to get candidates listed by jurisdiction, alphabetically (all cities start with “City of”). You can also search alphabetically by candidate name, by clicking on the column header, “name.” At the left of each line bearing a candidate’s name, click on the word “details,” which will take you to a disclosure hub page for him or her, with links to the reports they have been required to file with the PDC on who is giving money to their campaigns and how and with whom they are spending it. Additional information is available. At each candidate’s hub page, you can click on tabs for cash contributions, in-kind contributions, expenditures and “independent spending,” which are contributions from issue-oriented political committees who must register with the state.
A LOOK AT THE RACE FOR MAYOR OF FEDERAL WAY, USING PDC TOOLS. Let’s see exactly how the online campaign contribution disclosure works by looking at the two finalist candidates for mayor of Federal Way, a fast-growing suburban city in King County, not far south of Seattle. The population is 88,040 and the annual budget $51 million (city fact sheet). Until this election, the mayor had been a city council member chosen by a vote of the council only. A local initiative approved by voters has instituted a new system with a “strong mayor” earning $112,800 annually to be elected by local voters.
One finalist is Mahlon S. (“Skip”) Priest, a former city council member who went on to serve in the state legislature. At his PDC hub page, click on “cash contributions.” It showed – at this writing – that in the current contest for mayor he had received 123 contributions totaling, $31,340, with the largest donations coming from entities such as Walmart, the Affordable Housing Council, AT&T, Premera, Blue Cross, the Seattle law firm K & L Gates’ political committee, Pemco Insurance, the Vulcan real estate development company headed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Comcast, Microsoft and Port Blakely Tree Farms. Numerically, most of the contributions come from private individuals, however.
VIEWING AND SHARING OPTIONS FOR THE DATA: “Details” provides more information for each contribution. On each candidate’s hub page you’ll also find a row of icons, on the right, which when clicked will allow you to get the data in one of several forms. From the left, they are: pdf file, Excel spreadsheet, and a plain-type document suitable for easy linking. The fourth icon is for an RSS feed, which will send new data to your RSS reader as it is uploaded to the candidate’s online hub by the PDC. In addition, via “bookmark” there is a social media and social bookmarking “share” widget so you can spread the latest campaign contribution data around via nearly 300 different tools including Facebook, Twitter and Digg. Another tab lets you select the candidates opponents and locate their hub pages.
Priest’s opponent James A. Farrell is a former prosecutor. His PDC hub page shows that – as of this writing – he has raised $44,416 in 204 contributions. Top contributors included King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Lee Nelson, developer Mark Robison of Highmark Investments, Ltd., and a number of retired individuals.
WHAT IS THE MEANING, AND USEFULNESS OF THIS KIND OF DATA? Citizens, journalists and others monitor campaign contributions to see who is serious about running for office, who their supporters are, and who may come visiting if they are elected. Campaign contribution data can serve as a character reference, or the opposite, and as a form of legitimate, if partial public intelligence on future legislation, policy or property development which may be advocated by contributors. These contributors are completely within their rights to do so, just as ordinary citizens and citizen groups are also within their rights to lobby government officials. The underlying premise of advocates of I-276 and voters who approved it is that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
- PDC meeting agendas and minutes are batched by year online and as illustrated by the August 26, 2010 agenda, often include links to pending investigations, or even draft proposed legislation to strengthen disclosure law or electoral ethics – such as this PDC outline for a bill that if adopted by the legislature would require clear identification of the political sponsors of telephone “push polls” (a disguised form of negative advertising) and possibly other wide-scale telephone politicking on behalf of a candidate or ballot measure.
- The Washington Coalition For Open Government, the successor group to I-276’s sponsors and organized supporters, published this informative history of the initiative.
- The Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington provides this informative guide to public records law in the state, particularly as it applies to cities.