Campaign finance reform is needed at all levels of American government. This article addresses the issue by beginning in our own backyard with the Naperville City Council.
By Beverly George
On Monday, November 16, 2020, the League of Women Voters-Naperville hosted Naperville Councilwoman Theresa Sullivan in a webinar to present, explain, analyze, and answer questions about her proposed “City Ordinance to Amend Chapter 13 (Conflict of Interest) of Title 1 (Administrative) of the Naperville Municipal Code.”
Simply put, the ordinance is meant to make campaign contributions to city council members more transparent to the public by opting for mandatory disclosure of any campaign donations greater than $500 by an “interested entity” prior to voting on a matter before the council to which the entity has voiced a position on said matter. This ordinance will cover all donations above $500 from the most recent election cycle and makes the disclosure immediate and on the record before the council member votes.
How will it bring greater transparency?
An “interested entity,” such as an individual, business, union, or PAC, makes a campaign contribution greater than $500 to a candidate running for mayor or city council. The candidate is elected, and the campaign donor subsequently comes before the council to speak on behalf of, or in objection to, a particular agenda item. Current ethics laws do not require the mayor or any council members to disclose that campaign contribution, nor to recuse themselves from voting on the item at hand.
Current campaign finance laws in Illinois require any candidate who spends more than $5,000 on their campaigns to file a quarterly D-2 form with the State Board of Elections (SBE). The D-2 lists donors’ names and the amount each contributed to the campaign, and this information is available to the public during and after the election. If a donor contributes $1,000 or more, that larger sum requires the candidate to report it immediately to the SBE and not wait for the quarterly report.
However, when a candidate has taken office, no current ethics laws require an elected official to disclose any campaign donation from any “interested entity” before voting on a matter relevant to that donor, nor are there any current laws requiring recusal from voting on a matter relevant to the donor.
The Naperville mayor and city council members discussed the proposed ordinance at the November 17, 2020 meeting. Mayor Steve Chirico and some council members objected to the proposed ordinance on the grounds that it is duplicative because the D-2 forms already on file with the SBE reveal this information to the voters.
Councilwoman Patty Gustin believes the ordinance will present a burden to keep up with donations over $500 made during the campaign. Gustin has proposed a second option of posting a link from the Naperville City Council website to the D-2 forms filed at the SBE for each council member.
However, Sullivan’s ordinance is designed to connect the dots between campaign contributions and votes on agenda items before the council, and I believe it does so with immediate ease and transparency to the voters. I disagree with the protestations of duplication and burden in maintaining campaign donation records. I also oppose Gustin’s proposed link to the D-2 forms as a substitute for the ordinance, although the link could be posted in addition to adopting the Mandatory Disclosure Ordinance.
Councilwoman Gustin’s proposal puts the onus for disclosure on the voter. Armed only with her proposed link to the D-2 forms, a voter who wants to find out if an “interested entity” has contributed to a mayoral or council member’s campaign would have to look up nine D-2 forms in search of that donor. Voters would have to do that for every relevant agenda item they wanted to follow.
How would the Mandatory Disclosure Ordinance work?
Here’s an example of this ordinance in action. Before a vote, an affected council member might say something like the following.
“Mr. Jones, representing ACME Widgets, Inc., has spoken in favor of building an ACME warehouse on Oak Street. Before I vote, let the record show ACME Widgets, Inc. donated $700 to my recent campaign.”
The council member then votes, in no way bound to agree with ACME Inc., nor to recuse themselves from the vote, just to be transparent and avoid any shadow of conflict of interest.
This proposed ordinance does not change state campaign finance laws. It also doesn’t change how much money a candidate can accept from an individual, a corporation, a union, or a PAC. City council members may recuse themselves from the vote if they so choose.
It does, however, raise the bar for candidates running for Naperville mayor or city council positions to be constantly open to the public about the campaign donations they have accepted and to continue this transparency for the duration of their terms in office. The proposed Mandatory Disclosure Ordinance is a simple procedural requirement, and it would build greater trust in elected officials.
I believe the eleven candidates running for city council on April 6, 2021, should be prepared to state clearly their positions on this proposed ordinance, because it will certainly be asked.
What can you do?
Please read and get informed about this proposed city ordinance change. You can watch the Nov. 17 city council meeting posted at http://naperville.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=1350. Discussion on this topic by council members begins at approximately 1:17.
Initially, there were two options for this ordinance, but only the option for the Mandatory Disclosure Ordinance remains up for a vote at the December 15, 2020 city council meeting. Comments on Councilwoman Gustin’s proposal to provide a link on the city council website to the SBE and D-2 records for the mayor and city council members also will be heard then.
I urge you to support Councilwoman Sullivan’s Mandatory Disclosure Ordinance.
Please write the city council members to voice your support for the proposed ordinance for Mandatory Disclosure. Explain that a link to D-2 forms filed with the SBE is not a viable substitute and puts the onus for disclosure on the voters. That responsibility should remain with the elected officials.
You can find email addresses for city council members at https://www.naperville.il.us/government/meet-your-city-council/. Scroll down to “Contact Your City Council.” Or you can send them all the same email message at email@example.com .
Finally, once the December 15 council meeting agenda is posted, you can
enter your remarks to be read into the record on Dec. 15, or you can sign up to read your remarks yourself via Zoom at the meeting.
If you have an occasion to ask candidates for city council a question, consider asking them to state their position clearly on the recently proposed Mandatory Disclosure Ordinance to amend the Naperville Municipal Code.
ACE Leader Beverly George also is a member of Indivisible, the Naperville League of Women Voters, and the Citizens Climate Lobby. She also volunteers with her parish PADS group. A former chemist, George worked in clinical chemistry and hematology research at the Centers for Disease Control for six years and taught chemistry and freshman science at Naperville North High School for 20 years.