Little Rock's elected officials want the Arkansas Ethics Commission to reconsider investigating how a city election rule fits within state campaign law since their challengers in next year's election currently have a hand up in fundraising.
The question arose with a citizen complaint in August alleging that current state Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, who announced he is exploring a run for mayor, is violating a city ordinance that restricts any candidate for municipal office in the 2018 election from accepting campaign donations before June 1, 2018.
People disagree on whether the city code is at odds with state law that allows potential candidates to create an exploratory committee and collect funds two years prior to an election. Money collected by exploratory committees eventually gets passed along to the candidate when he formally announces.
City Attorney Tom Carpenter opined last week that state law gives cities the authority to set more stringent requirements and thus candidates planning to file for mayor or city board member in Little Rock must follow the city's ordinance.
Since it is state law that gives Little Rock the right to set a time frame upon which candidates are allowed to collect funds, the Arkansas Ethics Commission has authority to investigate the ethics question of whether Sabin is violating city code, Carpenter argued.
The commission said in August that the matter was not within its jurisdiction.
The Little Rock Board of Directors voted unanimously Monday night to request that the commission reconsider and issue an expedited opinion. Carpenter told the board that he would have a letter hand-delivered to the commission today. The commission has 90 days from receipt of a request to issue a response. It did so much sooner in August when the question of Sabin's exploratory committee was raised.
In addition to Sabin, banker Frank Scott Jr. has announced he is looking into a run for mayor. He also has formed an exploratory committee and is accepting contributions.
While no challengers have formally announced a run for any of the seven city board seats up for election, the matter affects those positions, too.
Current board members have said it's unfair that their challengers have longer to raise funds.
At-large City Director Gene Fortson said Monday that a long election season presents the opportunity for impropriety. Since board members are in session year-round -- meeting weekly -- it could raise concerns if someone who has business before the board makes a donation to a director's campaign, Fortson said.
"It places those of you who are incumbents in a difficult position," he said of the ward directors who will run for re-election next year. "It also means we are going to have 18 months of campaigning and fundraising, which as I said last week is not to the advantage of the system simply because we are in session constantly and I think there's an opportunity for the appearance of inappropriateness."
Candidates who have created an exploratory committee must file a report with the county clerk's office 30 days after the end of each month detailing their fundraising and expenses.
As of M̶o̶n̶d̶a̶y Aug. 31*, Sabin had raised almost $75,000. He has spent almost $10,000 of that. Scott had only recently filed to form his exploratory committee and has not yet reported how much he has raised.
Incumbent Mayor Mark Stodola, who said he will run for re-election, is not allowed to collect campaign contributions until June 1. He was allowed to keep money left over from the last election cycle. His account holds a carryover amount of $78,412.
The mayor's salary is $160,000. The mayor directs city board meetings and only votes in the event of a tie. He also has veto power. That seat and the seven ward seats will be on the Nov. 6, 2018 election ballot.
Both Sabin and Scott have issued statements saying they are following all applicable state laws and plan to continue collecting contributions.
"The Arkansas Ethics Commission has previously ruled that Warwick Sabin correctly formed an exploratory committee and followed all state laws," said a release from Sabin's campaign. "We are confident that a second ruling will once again confirm that a potential candidate has the right to form an exploratory committee."
Scott said the city board should repeal the ordinance that limits them from collecting campaign funds until June.
"Our city should be embracing those who bring new thoughts and solutions to the table instead of trying to silence them -- and the voices of our community -- in favor of the political status quo," Scott said in a statement.
Sabin went a step further, saying Carpenter issued his opinion to protect Stodola, who Sabin said can "use his massive campaign war chest."
"This shameless cronyism is why Warwick Sabin believes it's time for a change in Little Rock City Government," his statement said.
Metro on 10/03/2017
*CORRECTION: State Rep. Warwick Sabin’s exploratory committee for Little Rock mayor raised almost $75,000 through Aug. 31. An earlier version of this article that ran in Tuesday’s edition incorrectly identified the date.
Print Headline: LR asks panel to reconsider rule; Incumbents say challengers have head start on fundraising