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Campaign contributions stall ethics reform

County officials are concerned over cap on aid to candidates

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The latest batch of ethics reforms at Salt Lake County stalled Tuesday as officials volleyed concerns about a tighter cap on campaign contributions.

The measure will resurface at the County Council for a vote in three weeks, becoming the latest reform to come out of an ethics committee created earlier this year.

The proposed ordinance would lower the limit on contributions from $5,000 to $2,500 per individual for each election cycle. But while tightening up dollar amounts, the ordinance also would reopen the door to contributions from contractors.

That avenue for campaign funding was closed off by former acting Mayor Alan Dayton in the waning days of the Nancy Workman administration last year. But Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who crafted the proposed ordinance, said people who hold a contract with the county should be able to pitch in for campaigns because of the lower donation cap.

"What we need to do is get an act through to limit influence but still allow business to go on," Wilson said. "But if you go too low, the dollars bubble up elsewhere."

But Councilman Mark Crockett said while the cap may be lower than before, it is still too high. The $2,500 figure actually works out to about $15,000 per individual, per election because of the definition of "election cycle," which allows a maximum contribution each non-election year, before a convention, before a primary election and before the final vote.

Although Crockett would rather not see any limits on campaign contributions, he said if the county is going to set a limit, then it should be meaningful.

"The limits that we're putting in are so high as to be a joke," he said.

The proposed limit was also a disappointment to Cassie Dippo, vice-chairwoman of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Utah. Dippo, who sat on the committee that created the ordinance, said the group had originally agreed on a $1,000 limit, but the language was changed before it was presented to the council.

"I don't like it at all. I just think it's too high," she said.

County Auditor Sean Thomas also has qualms about the ordinance because it does not place a cap on contributions from political parties. Money given to a particular candidate's party could be used for that person's race, but would not have to be accounted for on financial disclosures.

That absence makes it difficult for citizens to quickly see how much a particular campaign costs by going to the county Web site and pulling up the disclosure forms.

And although the cap for individual donations may be lower, Thomas said the new ordinance may encourage donors to circumvent the law by funneling money via the party.

"My concern with the draft is it does create a loophole," Thomas said. "The average citizen is currently able to go to a Web site and see actual total cost."

Still, several elected officials at the county said they do not see the need to put any sort of limit on how much they could garner for their campaign.

Sheriff Aaron Kennard, for example, said he wondered why he had to be subjected to a limit even though he doesn't make decisions that could favor donors. The mayor and council, he said, are the only ones who need to stave off suspicion about bought influence.

"I'm at a loss to have anyone explain to me why we need a limit," he said. "Never in my 16 years have I been influenced by a vendor."

Along with campaign finance reform, Crockett also pitched two other measures to the council that require county employees to recuse themselves from votes or discussions on topics to which they have any financial tie. The second measure prohibits former county employees from lobbying the county for one year.

In other county business Tuesday:County Council members instructed the mayor's office to enforce an ordinance that will prohibit Reagan Outdoor Advertising from renewing permits for eight billboards slated for construction between I-80 and the Great Salt Lake. The permits expired in May and county officials now say the eight billboards will not be allowed to be built elsewhere by the company.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com