Council prepares to trump mayor on political-influence law

UPDATE, March 14, 2013: The City Council voted Wednesday to override to the mayor’s veto, 47-0.

As early as Wednesday, the City Council will vote to override the mayor’s veto of legislation that will roll back disclosure rules for groups that seek to influence elections.

If the council successfully overturns the veto, companies, unions and other membership groups will no longer have to disclose the money they spend advocating for or against a candidate, as long as their communications only target their own ranks.

“Member-to-member communications are not intended to influence that public,” Councilmember Gale Brewer, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, said at the hearing today at the Committee on Governmental Operations. “So the public’s interest in source disclosure is significantly reduced.” The committee voted in favor of overriding the veto.

However, Mayor Michael Bloomberg does not share these views. In the memo attached to his veto, he stated that the council’s legislation “will only weaken the City’s strong campaign disclosure laws and I see no reason why unions and other organizations should not be held to the same standard as others who are supporting candidates for elective office.”

The City Council Committee on Governmental Operations, chaired by Councilmember Gale Brewer, right, voted today to override Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of a bill loosening campaign finance disclosures. Photo: Beth Morrissey

Despite the veto, the legislation has been all but a done deal since the Council voted on it in January, when the measure passed with only one dissenting vote. The council, which only needs 34 votes to override a veto, will vote on the matter again during its session on Wednesday.

Only two elections have been subject to the Campaign Finance Board’s current disclosure rules: the special election held last month to replace former councilmember (now state senator) James Sanders, and the special election held last November to replace former (and disgraced) councilmember Larry Seabrook.

In both instances, the only independent expenditures made were by the union 1199SEIU, which sent mailers to its members urging them to support Andy King to replace Seabrook, and Donovan Richards to replace Sanders. King and Richards won their respective races.

The union’s spending in both contests totals about $35,000. If the council overrides the mayor’s veto, expenditures such as these will not be disclosed during the 2013 citywide elections.

According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, which advocated against the council’s bill, the disclosures so far show that the public has an interest in money spent on member-to-member communications.

“Its important that voters know who’s trying to influence their votes,” said Eric Friedman, director of external affairs for the board. “Its also important that the public at large understands who is spending money to influence elections.”

Last January Council Member Rosie Mendez, who sponsored the legislation that will curb the Board’s rules, argued that member-to-member communications did not require disclosure because recipients already know the source of the communication. At the same hearing, a quintet of good-government groups objected to government had the power to regulate how an organization communicates with its own members.

According to Brewer, the recent special elections don’t show the vast spectrum of membership organizations that participate in the electoral process. “Not everything is as big as 1199,” she said.

Brewer is concerned that the Board’s current disclosure rules could discourage small membership organizations from endorsing candidates. “All the rules are going to apply to the little ones too,” she said. “If they can’t tell their members what they’re doing, that’s a problem.”

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