A limited ban on developer campaign donations goes into effect this month
A ban on some campaign donations to Cincinnati City Council members and the mayor takes effect later this month. Interim City Manager John Curp recently approved regulations for the "solicitation ban" the previous council passed in an ordinance last year.
The rules prohibit sitting council members and the mayor from soliciting or accepting campaign donations from someone with active business at council, starting from the day the ordinance is filed with the council clerk.
A new Office of Ethics and Good Government has been working on the regulations since last fall, under Director Chris Liu.
"We wanted to make sure we reached out to community councils, economic development companies, and also our chamber of commerce friends, to try to make sure that what we're doing is something that doesn't hurt the city economic development process but that enhances it," Liu said. "The [regulations] document probably went through about 98 different revisions before it got to the form that it currently is in."
Both the new office and the solicitation ban are the result of anti-corruption reform efforts in the wake of three bribery arrests of council members in 2020. An Economic Development Reform Panel (made up of members appointed by then-Mayor John Cranley) recommended a series of changes.
"What we want to do with this whole process is really be able to identify and create additional transparency for who's in this process," Liu said. "We want to be able to potentially identify conflicts of interest, and we want to prevent improper campaign contributions that might otherwise influence the process."
The campaign donation rules will go into effect May 26; in the weeks before that, Liu's office will lead a few training sessions for elected officials, business leaders, and the public. Two public meetings are scheduled:
- Friday, May 20, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in Room 115 of City Hall
- Monday, May 23,from 11 a.m. to noon in Room 115 of City Hall
Liu's office is working to publish two public lists:
- City Business List: all financially interested persons from the time of application for city business to six months after the conclusion of legislative action on the city business.
- Temporary Prohibition List: only those financially interested persons from whom solicitation or acceptance of campaign contributions is currently prohibited because relevant city business is before council.
Liu says the public will immediately be able to search both lists and cross-reference it with the Cincinnati Elections Commission's campaign finance portal online. Eventually it will be a "one-stop shop" where donations are listed directly next to a person listed on the City Business List or Temporary Prohibition List.
Council Member Liz Keating says the ordinance was sold as an anti-corruption measure, but it's not going to accomplish that.
"At the end of the day, if you're gonna have a corrupt politician, you're gonna have a corrupt politician, nothing is going to be able to keep that from happening," Keating said. "This creates more transparency; the public should know who's donating to candidates and their engagement with the city in different ways."
Keating says the ordinance should be broadened to include more than just developers, because other types of people have a financial interest in decisions made by council.
"I think we need to be including more major donors to PACs to understand what they're looking for, to unions to executives, and board members of major nonprofits that are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money," Keating said.
Council could also expand the period of time in which it's illegal to accept a donation from a developer. As written, developers can still donate to council members and the mayor while negotiating an incentive deal.
Developers will still be able to donate to council members and the mayor while negotiating an incentive deal. The timing of that prohibition was debated last year.
"We used to get ordinances at the last minute and have to vote on them," said Council Member Greg Landsman. "As Chair [of the Budget and Finance Committee], I'm saying — and the mayor is pushing this as well — the administration needs to put an abatement-related ordinance on the calendar and it needs to sit there for a couple of weeks."
The rules don't require more frequent campaign finance reports, which means no new information for the public for over a year. Any council member who files for re-election in 2023 will have a pre-election report due in July and a post-election report due in October.
Landsman tried to pass an ordinance for council members to disclose campaign donations within a couple of days, but Council voted that down. Landsman says he'll bring it up again.
"I think ultimately it will get expanded as we get further and further into the process. That seems inevitable," Landsman said. "Whether it's an off-year [election] or not, members of council are accepting donations — the mayor is; I am. All of that should be completely transparent, completely visible to the public."
Although this isn't an election year for council members, Landsman is actively campaigning for another office: he's challenging Republican Rep. Steve Chabot for a seat in Congress this fall.
The local regulations specifically include situations like this, in Rule 6: "[Campaign] includes the campaigns of current City of Cincinnati elected officials that are running for non-City of Cincinnati elected offices."
Landsman has several campaign finance reports due to the Federal Elections Commission this year:
- April 15 (contributions through March 31)
- July 15 (through June 30)
- October 15 (through September 30)
- October 27 (through October 19)
- December 8 (through November 28)
The Cincinnati Elections Commission will meet May 12 to consider changes to their rules. Liu says that includes requiring Landsman to file "mirror reports" with the city so that the information can be included on the local portal and eventually on the City Business List.
Liu says any council member can file campaign finance reports with the CEC portal as often as they like, even for a single contribution.
Asked whether he would file reports more often than is required, Landsman said he will likely do what he did during the council campaign: report contributions on his campaign website.
"On my council races, we updated publicly every time we got a contribution," Landsman said. "And I suspect we'll do the same, if we're not already doing the same, we'll do the same on the congressional race."
Landsmanforcongress.com does not have a contribution list as of Wednesday afternoon.
See the full list of regulations below: