Friday, January 16, 2009

Municipal Campaign Finance Disclosures Unavailable


January 14, 2009 Reported By: Colin Woodard

Ever wonder if one of your elected representatives is in somebody's pocket? One way to find out has been to have a look at their campaign finance disclosures. In Maine, disclosures for candidates for federal, state and county offices are all just a web search away. But if you're interested in who's been underwriting the political careers of your local or city officials, you may be out of luck. Most of those documents have been destroyed with the blessing of state officials.

Even if you don't live in Portland, you've probably heard of the proposed multi-million dollar hotel and office development on the city-owned Maine State Pier that's stirred so much controversy. There are lots of archived news stories detailing the three-year-old saga. But if you were wondering who might have contributed to the campaigns of the local politicians who have shaped the story, you might be out of luck.

"In the 20 years I've been clerk, I have systematically destroyed the records according to the disposition rules," says Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen. Cohen says that on the advice of state authorities, municipal officials have been destroying disclosures, pulling them down from websites and shredding all paper copies--within as little as two years after an election. "I'm an administrator and I have to systematically clean out our files and that's how this has always been done under the rules that the state of Maine has handed down to us."

Under Maine statute, campaign records for candidates for county and state offices are retained for at least eight years, and can be downloaded at the website of the state's commission on governmental ethics. Candidates for local office in muncipalities of 15,000 or greater also must file disclosures, but those records fall under separate document retention rules interpreted by the Maine State Archives.

Those rules never mention campaign finance documents, but there is a clause that allows "all elections records not otherwise specified" to be destroyed after two years. According to State Archivist David Cheever, his staff has long interpreted that phrase to include campaign disclosures, and have advised city clerks that they may destroy them accordingly. "You're not dealing with irresponsible clerks out there who are hurrying around to trash records or dispose of records prematurely. You are looking at people who, to the best of their ability, have been following the regulation or the rule as it has been interpreted."

As a result, it is now impossible to trace over time the relationships between elected municipal officials and the real estate developers, unions, political action committees and individuals who underwrote their political careers. The city of Bangor has destroyed all campaign records prior to 2004, according to city clerk Patti Dubois. Last year, Portland pulled electronic records from its website, and has destroyed all records dated before 2006, including those of sitting city councilors. And Augusta recently shredded all disclosures dated before 2004.

"I'm very concerned that we do not have access more than two years old, especially when you consider that it takes some effort to destroy records, especially when they are electronic records, which most are today," says John Bartholomew, director of the Maine chapter of Common Cause, a public interest group that seeks to curb the influence of money in politics. "I would urge first and foremost any cities that are already doing this to stop. It is not required of them, it is only advised of them. So please, stop now."

Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics agrees that local records should not be destroyed after two years. "Ideally you would keep disclosures of how elections are financed and how candidates raise their money forever because it's good to know what a contributor's track record is with a politician."

Ritsch, whose Washington D.C.-based organization tracks money's influence on elections, says local politicians can be influenced by special interests. "Real estate developers are probably the biggest campaign contributor at the local level because they have so much at stake at what city councils and county planning boards do. They want approvals for their projects and one way that they grease the skids is through campaign contributions. And given the nature of development projects, that they don't just go up over night, it's all the more important that you keep records on hand of how developers have financed political campaigns beyond two years.

But Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen says that until now nobody has expressed concerns with current policy and that the rules are sensible. "From a space standpoint we don't have a lot of space to be keeping any documents that we don't have to keep forever longer than the disposition rules tell us to keep them. In order to be able to keep those records and be able to easily find them whenever the public wants to look at them I think the rules have been reasonable in the retention period for everything that the clerk's office deals with."

Change may be on its way. State officials have been contemplating a new requirement that local governments retain campaign disclosures for fifteen years, according to Archivist David Cheever. "We're going to recommend fifteen. We hope that's what it is. It will put an additional burden on some local governments to retain those records for that period but that's part of what's going to make this work so everybody can have access to this material for what we would consider to be a reasonable amount of time."

Cheever expects the proposed changes will come before the State Archives advisory board sometime this year.

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