Little Rock will seek a declaratory judgment from Pulaski County Circuit Court on the question of whether candidates for city office have to follow contribution guidelines set in a city ordinance or if they can go by a more lenient time frame set in state law.
The Board of Directors voted 8-1 Tuesday to seek a court ruling after being advised by City Attorney Tom Carpenter of their options. Ward 1 City Director Erma Hendrix voted against seeking a declaratory judgment and Ken Richardson of Ward 2 had stepped out of the meeting before the vote was taken.
The city's campaign code forbids anyone running for municipal office from accepting contributions prior to June 1 before a November election.
Two potential challengers to Mayor Mark Stodola already have begun raising funds through their exploratory committees for the November 2018 election. State law allows such committees to collect funds two years out from an election. A different state law allows cities to set a stricter time frame on campaign fundraising.
Carpenter has opined that the city's stricter time frame should be followed, but the Arkansas Ethics Commission has declined to issue an opinion on whether the the state law accommodates the city ordinance.
In light of the Ethics Commission's refusal to rule on the matter, Carpenter told the board it had three options. It could have repealed its ordinance, thus allowing both incumbents and challengers to raise money for next year's election now; it could seek an opinion from the state attorney general; or it could ask for a circuit court judgment.
While Carpenter didn't recommend an option, he said that seeking a declaratory judgment in court was the only way to get a real answer to the question of whether the city ordinance trumps state law.
An attorney general's opinion is not binding and if the Little Rock Board of Directors were to repeal its ordinance, it would just be condoning the action that is in violation, Carpenter wrote in a memorandum sent to the board Monday.
While getting a declaratory judgment in court will get a definite answer to the question, it also will be the most time consuming.
"If the court accepts the idea that it is an election issue, then expedited review in state court may be possible. However, interim injunctive relief to enforce, or not enforce, the time frame for solicitation and collection of campaign contributions in the ordinance is questionable," Carpenter wrote in his memo. "Further, while the city would file the action in state court since the legal questions deal with a state statute and a municipal ordinance, a restriction on campaign contributions may also trigger 1st Amendment considerations. If so, the case could be removed to federal court for which there is no expedited review because of an election issue."
He said each party likely would appeal the decision reached, extending the time frame even longer, possibly past the November 2018 election.
Carpenter warned that repealing the city's ordinance might have been considered a reward to behavior that violates city code. Still, it would have been the most immediate response to the rectify the situation.
The issue affects the ward positions up for election next year in addition to the mayor's race. While people have announced they will challenge some of the incumbent city directors, none has begun collecting funds.
State Rep. Warwick Sabin and banker Frank Scott Jr. have announced they are exploring the option of running against Stodola, and both have formed exploratory committees that are raising funds.
Gene Fortson, whose at-large seat on the board is not up for election next year, made the motion Tuesday to seek a court judgment.
Dean Kumpuris, Capi Peck, Kathy Webb, B.J. Wyrick, Lance Hines, Joan Adcock and Doris Wright joined Fortson in voting for the motion. Stodola can vote only in the event of a tie.
Adcock requested that Carpenter also seek an answer in his request to the court for a declaratory judgment as to whether city officials can keep carry-over or surplus funds after an election to use for the next election. Stodola has about $78,000 in leftover funds from his previous campaign and his opponents have criticized him from being able to use that money.
Metro on 11/08/2017
Print Headline: LR taking campaign law to court