Westfield’s new rule: Public good or a scarlet letter?

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The Westfield City Council has adopted a rule that supporters say will provide more transparency when members are voting on projects that benefit developers or others that have donated to their campaigns.

But critics say the change will benefit council members who can afford to bankroll their own campaigns, while those who rely on campaign contributions will be branded—as one councilman put it—with a “scarlet letter.”

The council voted 5-2 in late June to override a mayoral veto of the campaign finance disclosure rule, which had been more than a year-and-a-half in the making.

Under the new resolution, Westfield City Council members must disclose whether they’ve received $1,000 or more in campaign contributions from a donor before they vote or take any action on a project originated by that donor.

The new rule applies to both direct and in-kind donations from an individual, company or groups of companies with common corporate officers. Despite its long run-up, the resolution’s passing was rife with questions about its legal and behavioral implications.

“I don’t want to create a firestorm where there’s no need to have a firestorm,” said Scott Frei, the council’s District 4 representative and author of the resolution. “But there’s a perception that, since we’ve been a city, there’s been a lack of transparency.”

Frei—one of five council members elected to the seven-member body in 2019—did not cite any examples of problems with past votes by council members. During his campaign, he did not take any contributions of more than $1,000.

But as is the case at many levels of government in Indiana and elsewhere, companies that bid on public projects—such as developers and construction companies—or those that contract to provide government services—such as law firms—are among the biggest contributors to campaigns.

During the debate on the new rule, all the Westfield council members said they supported the ordinance’s intent—essentially discouraging votes that are a conflict of interest—but several still hold reservations about whether the move is entirely legal or necessary.

Anne Hensley Poindexter, the council’s attorney, said during a June 14 meeting that the resolution establishes “house rules” that build upon election laws already established by the federal and state government.

But Manny Herceg, Westfield’s city attorney, challenged that assessment. He maintains the rule is illegal because it seeks to regulate something that’s wholly regulated by the state.

The council voted 5-2 to approve the resolution, but Westfield Mayor Andy Cook did not sign it after taking Herceg’s opinion into account.

“Our legal team has provided an opinion that this resolution is not legally sufficient. I trust that analysis and have not heard any compelling counterpoints from the Council,” Cook said in a written statement. “I fully support all laws on reporting of political contributions and expect all office holders to comply with those laws. This seems like a regulation for the sake of regulation.”

The council voted June 28 to override the veto, and the resolution is now in effect. Whether the rule will draw litigation or have long-term effects on political giving is yet to be seen.

Looking for context

Steve Key

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, as well as a lobbyist for the public’s freedom of information rights. Although he couldn’t say for certain that Westfield is the first municipality in the state to enact such a rule, he called the resolution “a rare measure.”

Indiana already has a conflict-of-interest law, under which council members across local governments must disclose whether a project they are voting on would mean a financial benefit for members of their immediate family—essentially a spouse and dependent children.

But Key said the Westfield ordinance is different.

“This is not acknowledging a benefit they will receive after the vote; this is being transparent about a connection they might have with a developer prior to the vote,” Key said. “It’s not a conflict of interest, but it’s a move toward greater transparency.”

The Westfield council started talking about transparency measures shortly after the 2019 election, which included the ouster of three incumbents.

Jake Gilbert, representing District 2, is one of the members first elected in 2019. He said the city’s bustling development environment is at the root of the ordinance.

“Maybe it’s because of where we happen to live,” Gilbert said. “There are so many opportunities for corruption just due to the sheer amount of development.”

Cindy Spoljaric, one of Westfield’s at-large council members who won reelection in 2019, said it wasn’t “any one specific thing” that led her to support the resolution.

“We deal with a lot of projects that have developers that are campaign contributors, and we’ve heard from residents that it’s not acceptable—that it should be more out in the open,” she said.

A review of past campaign finance disclosure forms on the Hamilton County Election Office’s website show some candidates received thousands of dollars of donations from active developers in Westfield, including EdgeRock Development and The Estridge Cos.

“The bottom line is, there was some concern that a prior council accepted campaign donations from certain groups and—interestingly enough—some projects got approved that did not seem to pass the muster,” Frei said.

Nicholas Almendares

Nicholas Almendares, an associate law professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s Maurer School of Law, said it’s hard to argue against providing the public with more information.

If there is a case to be made against the resolution, he said, it’s in the way the resolution exposes donor-funded councilors to a potentially negative perception while allowing self-funded councilors to remain quiet.

“Any time you have some sort of campaign finance rule, the loophole is self-funding,” Almendares said. “The point really hinges on how voters will perceive this.”

Funding sources

Critics both on and off the council say that lack of equity is what bothers them about the rule. Of the council’s seven members, five either entirely or largely self-funded their most recent campaigns. Those members are Frei, Spoljaric, Troy Patton, Mike Johns and Joe Edwards.

Scott Willis

Willis and Gilbert, the two council members who voted against the resolution, each ran campaigns that were largely funded by donors.

Despite being unopposed, Willis raised more than $17,000 to fund his 2019 bid for the District 1 seat.

He received $1,000 donations from builders and developers who are active in Westfield, including Birch Dalton of EdgeRock Development and Gary McNutt, who has had ties to The Estridge Cos. and Wedgewood Building Co. Other $1,000 contributors include a marketing and mentoring executive, a former attorney, and representatives of commercial and public servant insurance agencies.

Willis said he was adamantly opposed to an earlier draft of the resolution that would have required he recuse himself anytime one of his donors brought forth a petition. And he’s still not sure the final version of the ordinance—which requires a disclosure instead—adds any value to the state’s campaign finance laws. Those laws already require candidates to itemize any donations they receive from an individual who gives more than $100 in a year and list the occupation of any donor who cumulatively contributes more than $1,000.

“There are laws out there that protect constituents from undue influence on elected officials. I think that’s already covered,” he said.

Gilbert raised more than $25,000 from a variety of contributors, including $5,500 from Westfield-based Thieneman Construction Inc.

His non-builder donations included $2,000 from Westfield Restaurant Group; $1,000 from Tradewinds Logistics, a trucking company; $1,000 from Carmel-based Moyer Fine Jewelers; $1,000 from ZPS Westfield LLC, a tool manufacturer; and $1,000 from PRO X Grand Park LLC.

Though they voted against the resolution, both Willis and Gilbert said they support the idea of greater transparency.

“I applaud the purpose behind it,” Gilbert said. “I was just against what I foresee as the execution. Most of our candidates are self-funded, and I don’t think that they’re holier-than-thou just because they can afford their own campaign. Whereas some guy in a low-paying job like a teacher—like me—should have to wear a scarlet letter just because he took campaign donations.”

Cooling contributions

Gilbert and others have raised concerns that any association with such a disclosure might dissuade candidates or corporate contributors from risking a political black eye.

But Frei said dissuading developers from giving relatively large sums of money might not be the worst outcome. He said he doesn’t understand how candidates have gotten to a point where they’re raising $10,000 to get elected for a job with a $16,000 annual salary.

“That concept doesn’t make sense to me. It’s absolutely insane,” he said. “If we’re doing it right, we’re doing it to serve our neighbors, not in the interest of some political campaign for ourselves. A lot of people have allowed themselves to lose the focus.”

Willis said he disagrees with the premise that there’s something wrong with taking donations from a person or company that agrees with his vision for the city of Westfield.

“I just don’t buy into the fact that there’s something wrong with that, that I should be embarrassed by it,” he said.•

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