City and county councils explore campaign reform

Committee may be formed to prepare contribution legislation

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Facing a potential train wreck of competing campaign reform concepts, city and county council members may create a joint committee to hash out legislation that would cap political donations to candidates, possibly even in borough and township races.

That possibility arose yesterday out of a special city council meeting on caps proposed by Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The meeting showed just how little consensus exists on the issue.

"You've got some bad characters, and everyone else has to be judged based on those bad characters," complained city Councilwoman Tonya Payne. Rather than capping donations to local candidates, "the punishment should apply to all, statewide."

Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Onorato want to allow individuals and partnerships to give no more than $4,600 to any given city or county candidate in a four-year election cycle, with political action committees limited to $10,000. Campaign checks from those sources are now unlimited in the state, except in Philadelphia, while most states and major cities have contribution caps.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, a Democratic mayoral challenger, peppered city Policy Director Gabe Mazefsky with questions about what he termed the "flip-flopping" of Mr. Ravenstahl, who vetoed a campaign reform proposal last year.

"I think that the mayor's position on campaign finance reform is not consistent and is contrived," said Mr. Dowd, who voted for last year's proposal, authored by Councilman William Peduto.

Mr. Mazefsky countered that Mr. Dowd never proposed campaign reform as a councilman or in four years on the city school board. He said a key change for the mayor was the inclusion of the county in this year's proposal.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he wants an amendment requiring that donors disclose any contracts they or their firms may have with local government. Mr. Dowd said he wants easily searchable online databases of contributions and contracts. Mr. Peduto said he insists on limits lower than those in the current proposal, and a legislated ban on no-bid contracts.

County Council President Rich Fitzgerald, appearing at city council's invitation, said he and some of his colleagues want the limits applied to borough and township candidates, too.

One challenge: Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Onorato want basically identical legislation from both councils, to maintain an even political playing field. Divergent bills could meet with vetoes.

Mr. Burgess suggested an ad hoc city-county committee to iron out differences, and Mr. Fitzgerald endorsed the idea.

It's unclear, though, whether either council can coalesce around any proposal.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he doesn't yet see "broad-based support" for contribution limits on the 15-member county council. On the nine-member city council, Ms. Payne was joined by Darlene Harris and Theresa Smith in the view that it would be better to lobby for statewide limits.

Some members noted that there's nothing inherently wrong with raising campaign money.

"The guy that's able to raise a little bit more money than the other guy, that doesn't mean he's the bad guy," said Councilman Jim Motznik, who wants statewide limits, but would support identical city-county measures.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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