By Henry J. Stern
October 8, 2009
Yesterday we wrote about the Campaign Finance Board’s practice of granting thousands of dollars to candidates who had minimal opposition in the November general elections. It appeared to us that to give money to sure winners does not promote the goal of assuring fair elections.
In order to see what actually goes on at the CFB, we decided to attend this morning’s meeting of the Board, and if possible express our views.
The meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. in a Conference Room on the 19th floor of an office building at 40 Rector Street, between West and Washington Streets, where the CFB has its offices.
We (Pogo and I) arrived a few minutes before ten o’clock, and we were told that the Board was having a pre-meeting, but would be back by ten. Sure enough, they were, and the members took their places at the west end of the conference room. The meeting was called to order promptly, and the minutes of the previous meeting were approved without corrections or dissent. The chair then moved that the Board go into executive session to discuss the business of the day.
The Board members, followed by senior staff, then left the room and went to another, more private room. They stayed about twenty minutes or so. Then they returned to the Conference Room. An employee read a resolution approving the expenditure of various sums to 24 candidates, adding up to $797,192. The Board, without discussion or dissent, agreed to the resolution, which had not yet been distributed even to the people in the room. I heard the name one candidate spoken by the reading clerk and asked why he was receiving $500,000 when he said he would decline the funds. It was explained that the candidate in question was simply the first name on the list and he had not, in fact, received any public funds. The hearing was about to be adjourned by the chair.
At that time, I asked if anyone from the public would be allowed to speak on the matter. I was told, politely, that this was not a public process, but that I would be allowed to speak. I did so, briefly, citing yesterday’s article, and calling specific attention to the case of Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez of upper Manhattan, who took the place of Councilmember Miguel Martinez, who resigned and was convicted of the felony of bribery.
Let it be clear that at all times I was treated with courtesy. The staff was co-operative, the commissioners were polite. They may have thought I was crazy for inquiring into the substance of how they did business, but they did not manifest their distaste, if any. The board serves without pay, and everyone wants to do what is best. CFB is a relatively young agency, with good people. They restrict themselves unduly by a narrow approach to their responsibilities. If they need legislative relief from the constrictions on their authority, they should seek public support for their emancipation, and expose the Lilliputians holding them in bondage.
My Initial suggestions are: to devote a portion of each Board meeting on issues before the Board, to conduct discussion in public rather than in executive session, to publish and distribute a calendar, and to clarify reporting of what is spent, and who ultimately receives the expenditures. An ethics agency like the CFB should meet the highest standards of transparency and disclosure. The CFB is not an onion which has to be peeled, layer by layer, to discover the reasoning behind its decisions.
We return to our prime exhibit, the Rodriguez and Vargas case. Rodriguez won the 2009 Democratic primary in the 10th District (Upper Manhattan). He is now facing an insignificant challenge from a perennial candidate, Ruben Dario Vargas, a former Parks employee (1989-2001) who now claims to have an administrative position in the Police Department. Vargas contested the Democratic primary and received 421 votes, which was 5.28 per cent of the total vote cast. Rodriguez received 4785, which was 60 per cent of the vote. Undaunted by his 11 to 1 defeat in the primary, Vargas is said to be continuing his race on the Independent Party line, while Rodriguez will run on the Democratic line which he won September 15. Councilman Rodriguez has received $60,939 to fend off Vargas’ puny challenge.
Vargas raised $12,190 for his primary effort, which was matched by $56,310 in public funds. His total spending was $66,615.That comes out to $158.23 for every vote he received in September. Vargas had previously lost, by considerable margins, Democratic primaries for other offices he sought, including this Council seat, where he lost to Miguel Martinez in 2001 and 2005. In 2001, there were eight candidates for the office. Martinez won that year with 4116 vote. Vargas came in eighth, with 273 votes. In 2005, when Martinez sought renomination, there were only two candidates, Vargas lost to Martinez by a 4 to 1 margin.
Rodriguez told the Daily News that he intended to use the money to increase turnout. “I care about getting more voters out to vote. If I get a lot of votes, it will help show I have strong support and I will have more influence in the Council.” That is a reasonable motive, although his influence in the Council will depend more on his political acumen and the alliances he forms, rather than on the number of votes he received. He won with 60% in September. Now running on the Democratic line, he will win with at least 80% in November, and that is a very conservative estimate.
The larger question is whether we taxpayers should pay $60,939 so this man, certain of election, can get his name around the neighborhood. The purpose of public funding is fair elections, not personal aggrandizement.
De facto, the election was held in September, we await the coronation in November. But why must we pay to decorate Westminster Abbey? How about the candidate and his friends shelling up for that? People love to come to fund raisers for winners, and Rodriguez has already won by a substantial margin. Give him congratulations and good wishes, not sixty grand for a victory lap.
Why should the taxpayers subsidize candidates who are certain to win elections, or pay the expenses of vanity candidates who are perennial losers? Those are questions the Campaign Finance Board should address. If the Board conducts itself like a slot machine that simply spews out money to people who submit the proper forms, it does a disservice to the principles for which it was established under Mayor Koch 21 years ago. Hiding behind the rigidities of self-serving City Council legislation to justify unnecessary expenditures does no justice to the public purpose the Board was intended to perform.
Someone, not the City Council or any other public official receiving funds, should take a close look at what the taxpayers are getting for their CFB money. Let me make it clear that this is not an attack on public finance, although there are people object to it. I think it is a legitimate public purpose, if done reasonably and wisely. Unfortunately, in any government spending program, people game the system and reap unjust enrichment. Public funding is useful, it’s time to do the job right.
PS: We neglected to mention that Bill de Blasio, candidate for Public Advocate, was among the first to decline public funds for the general election. If others have made similar decisions, please let us know so we can add you to the list. If anyone wants to publicize the fact that s/he is taking public funds, advise us similarly and we will share that news with our readers.
StarQuest #605 10.08.2009 1284wds