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Provo plans requirement for PACs to register

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Provo might no longer be a playground for political hide-and-seek.

The City Council will consider an ordinance next week requiring political action or political issues committees to register with the city recorder's office. Provo currently does not call for PACs or PICs to publicly disclose any information.The new law would aim to stop the kind of anonymous campaigning that went on before the last municipal election.

"I want people to be accountable for what they do," said Councilman Mark Hathaway, who asked the council attorney to draft an ordinance.

Hathaway's call for a law comes in the wake of a series of newspaper ads placed by a group calling itself Ethics 4 Provo that attacked mayoral candidate Lewis Billings and Councilman Greg Hudnall, both of whom won their races. Only the group's chairman, Kent Barrus, is identified by name in the ads. Barrus, who says he's only a front man for the group, refuses to reveal who created and paid for the ads.

Billings' campaign workers have been hunting for the people behind Ethics 4 Provo since the first ad ran Oct. 26. Billings even offered a $500 reward for information revealing its organizers. Mayor George Stewart said last week he intends to file a lawsuit against the groups in an attempt to flesh out its members.

Councilwoman Shari Holweg, who supported Billings' and Hudnall's opponents, said she would have had no problem with a PAC disclosure law prior to the past election. But events of the past few weeks raised many questions in her mind.

"Are we enacting a law to inform the public or let public officials use their clout to silence dissent? Will legislation have a chilling effect on citizens wishing to organize and collectively express an opinion? What would have happened to the citizens involved this year if their identity was discovered? Public vilification? Personal castigation? Costly legal battles as the mayor has promised? Public execution? What?"

A public disclosure law would make it difficult for PACs to camouflage themselves.

Hathaway said political groups should face the same obligation as individual candidates who must file financial statements listing contributions and expenses each election cycle. "To me, they should be under the same scrutiny," he said.

Utah regulates PACs and PICs on a state level. Any group that receives or spends at least $750 must register with the lieutenant governor's office. The organization must list its officers and file a financial statement. Failure to do so is class B misdemeanor.

Salt Lake City has an ordinance patterned after the state law. It lumps PACs and PICs together as political committees and defines them as groups that promote the success or defeat of a candidate or issue. The records are on file for public inspection.

Provo's ordinance would likely parallel those two laws. Except Hathaway wants PACs to register after spending only $100.

According to a Provo City Council report, the law would make political committees and their financial contributors responsible for any public statements they make. "Committees couldn't buy public access without having to answer to the public," the report says.

The report also says the new law would not be an attempt to pry into the lives of individuals or organizations.

But Holweg is skeptical.

The councilwoman said non-public figures would be cast into the public arena simply because they support a certain position. "Is that what we want?" she said.

And after seeing what lengths the city administration is willing to go to expose Ethics 4 Provo, Holweg said she wonders if anyone would dare speak out against an incumbent again.

Holweg said she'll consider a political committee disclosure ordinance if her colleagues have compelling reasons for proposing one. She said the law would have to contain provisions that discourage retaliation against PACs by candidates or city officials. Public money or time should not be used to discredit groups with which an elected official may disagree, she said.