Campaign Finance Recusal Ordinance up for Repeal

Late last year, the Plano City Council narrowly passed an ordinance regarding recusal of council members who have received significant campaign donations from parties with a financial interest before the council. Tomorrow, that ordinance is up for repeal by the new Plano City Council. My post about tomorrow's meeting, including the link to sign up to speak, is here, and below are the background and the facts.

Graphic from Spectrum Association Management
Graphic from Spectrum Association Management

The Ordinance

First, the ordinance can be read here, and states in part: “The acceptance of a campaign contribution in excess of $1000 by any City Council Member(s) shall create a conflict of interest based on an appearance of impropriety with regard to any matter that would materially benefit a campaign contributor or any business entity in which said campaign contributor has a substantial interest.”

We already have laws requiring us to recuse ourselves if we receive personal remuneration or gifts in excess of a certain amount, and the intent of this ordinance is to ensure the integrity of the votes cast by members of council by extending that to campaign contributions, and to prevent undue influence by financial interests. Read on to find out why.

The Background

Last fall, Councilman Anthony Ricciardelli and I proposed several potential measures to ensure the integrity of council votes. Legal issues were cited with some ideas, but there was not enough support by council at the time to pursue the matter further. A couple of months later, Councilman Rick Smith and former Councilwoman Lily Bao brought forth the ordinance above for consideration. Unexpectedly, Councilman Rick Grady was unable to attend the meeting at which it was brought up, and the ordinance passed 4-3.

It was said at the time, and more recently, that the ordinance narrowly targets developers; you can read for yourself that this is not the case at all. The ordinance applies equally to anyone with a financial interest before council. That could be development projects, city contracts, economic development incentives, or grants. Developers were only the catalyst for this effort, as detailed below.

The 2019 Plano Elections

Plano is the 9th largest city in Texas, and development here is big business. According to the 2021 Collin and Denton County Certified Appraisal Rolls, Plano boasts more than $59 billion worth of land and improvements. While Plano is "built out", leaving only 4% of our available land undeveloped, the city is ripe for re-development, and building up instead of out. This, of course, was the big concern with the Plano Tomorrow Plan, which we repealed in 2020. Before that, though, development interests gave a lot of money to four particular candidates in the 2019 Plano elections.

They didn't give much directly to the campaigns; it would be easy to see that money on the individual campaign finance reports. However, as Erin Anderson reported in April of that year, the We Love Plano PAC was created as a repository for nearly a quarter million dollars, predominantly from commercial developers and from then-Mayor Harry LaRosiliere's campaign. Moreover, the Mayor was intimately involved in the PAC, as both had the same mailing address and campaign treasurer (see screenshots below).

Campaign Finance Report for Mayor Harry LaRosiliere

Campaign Finance Report for Mayor Harry LaRosiliere

Campaign Finance Report for We Love Plano PAC

Campaign Finance Report for We Love Plano PAC

The PAC "endorsed" the Mayor's preferred candidates and went so far as to send out a mailer to Plano seniors with applications for mail-in ballots, stating that the PAC had interviewed everyone running in the election, and chose those four. Needless to say, nobody else was interviewed, if anyone at all was, and the PAC wasn't a group of Plano citizens, as it presented itself, but was just a pass-through for developer money.

Here's how it worked: contributions to the PAC were solicited from developers (three of whom wrote personal checks for $25,000). The PAC gave nominal contributions to each of the candidates, but the primary way in which the money moved was by paying the candidates' expenses for the campaign consultant--Austin-based Murphy Nasica, which was the PAC's one and only expense.

The candidates would then report their share of Murphy Nasica's bills on their own campaign finance reports as in-kind contributions from the We Love Plano PAC. At first, the laughable description given for these in-kind contributions was "grassroots." As the campaign wore on, however, they were more appropriately called things such as "advertising" and "mailers." Nearly a quarter million dollars went into the We Love Plano PAC coffers from developers and the Harry LaRosiliere Campaign (which itself was largely funded by development interests), with his four preferred candidates benefiting to the tune of between $31,000 and $115,000 each.

It was a little more difficult to trace because unlike candidates, who are required to file their campaign finance reports with the city, PACs are required to file their reports with the Texas Ethics Commission. This, of course, was the intent. But it was all still developer money being funneled through the We Love Plano PAC to mask its nature in an attempt to get certain people elected to Plano City Council.

None of this is speculative. The full analysis of all spending and contributions in the 2019 election can be found in this spreadsheet.

All sorts of people support all sorts of candidates at all levels of government for all sorts for reasons. The intent of this ordinance was always simply to ensure council votes were not up for sale.

The Truth About PAC Money

When the repeal of this recusal ordinance was teed up a couple of weeks ago, it was said that its passage last year caused PAC spending to go through the roof. As shown below, however, that's simply not the case. Quite the opposite happened.

In 2019, $363,000 of PAC money was involved in the elections, including the runoffs. More than $141,000 of it was by the Firefighter's PAC, and $76,000 of that was during the runoff against me and Lily Bao. They spent only $108,000 this year.

This year's election involved only about half as much PAC money was involved--$198,000. See the spreadsheet here.

The average spent per candidate went down as well. In 2019, about $730,000 was spent among 11 candidates for an average of $66,000 each. This year, $850,000 was spent among 16 candidates, for an average of $53,000 each. Even total spending only increased by 16 percent, with five more candidates, and in a Mayoral election year.

Moreover, while PAC money comprised half of all spending in 2019, it made up less than a quarter of the spending in this year's election.

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