Reinvent Albany Asks Charter Revision Commission to Better Disclose and Limit Contributions to City-Affiliated Nonprofits by Donors Doing Business with the City
Recommends Commission Phase in Campaign Finance Reform Because of Unprecedented 2021 Election Activity Due to Term Limits
Reinvent Albany delivered testimony to the mayor-convened New York City Charter Revision Commission this evening, calling for more transparency and limits on contributions to city-affiliated nonprofits by donors doing business with the city.
Reinvent Albany also recommended the Commission phase in any changes to the campaign finance system because 300-400 candidates are expected to run for open seats in 2021, creating an unprecedented administrative challenge for the city Campaign Finance Board.
The full testimony is below:
Testimony to the 2018 NYC Charter Revision Commission
on Scope of Work and Effective Dates of Campaign Finance Reform Public Hearing #1
April 24, 2018
McKee High School, Staten Island, NY
Good evening Chair Perales and members of the Charter Revision Commission. I am Alex Camarda, the Senior Policy Advisor for Reinvent Albany. Reinvent Albany advocates for transparency and accountability in State government, and are leading champions for transparency in New York City government, particularly the Freedom of Information Law and open data.
We will present detailed recommendations at future hearings but wanted to comment tonight on two overarching issues as the commission begins its work: 1) the scope of the work the Commission takes on; and 2) when changes to campaign finance law should become effective.
The Commission’s Scope of Work
The Municipal Home Rule Law requires the Commission review the entirety of the City Charter, though Mayor de Blasio has requested the Commission particularly focus on campaign finance reform and increasing public funding of campaigns. The good news here is the campaign finance system, thirty years in the making, is a model for governments across the country. We support changes to improve the city’s already strong campaign finance system.
But New York City has a ways to go before it curbs the perception of and undue influence of money on government decision making. As the city’s campaign finance system has gotten stronger, money has flowed outside of it. Today, we believe the fastest growing area of outside influence and, in some instances, corruption risk is from people doing business or seeking favors from government contributing to nonprofit organizations affiliated with government.
We ask the Commission to take a close look at the large unregulated contributions (in some instances, over $1 million and often tens of thousands) given by companies and individuals doing business with the city to city-affiliated nonprofits, city agencies and city offices. We believe there are well over a hundred city-affiliated nonprofits. However, there is no public listing.
We ask the Commission to consider significantly restricting donations to city-affiliated nonprofits and city agencies by companies and individuals doing business with the city and greatly increase the transparency of donations.
Currently, there is not nearly enough transparency for contributions to nonprofits affiliated with city government. Contributions of $5,000 or more are disclosed every six months, and the amounts reported are provided in 7 broad ranges rather than the actual amount. In some instances, contributions are not disclosed by agencies to the public at all. Additionally, the COIB releases this information in a massive, 500-plus page PDF – instead of a tabular form that can be reviewed in a spreadsheet – thereby frustrating analyses by outside groups and journalists.
We also urge the Commission to review conflicts of interest potentially created when city officials help fundraise for city-affiliated and unaffiliated nonprofits, and city agencies. The current restrictions on fundraising for city agencies, city affiliated nonprofits, and unaffiliated nonprofits are nuanced and complicated, but ultimately too permissive and very challenging to enforce. Reinvent Albany is particularly concerned about the role of “volunteer” fundraisers for city-affiliated nonprofits, who are not subject to Advisory Opinions of the COIB or conflict of interest laws.
Effective Dates of Campaign Finance Reform
When it proposes changes to the campaign finance system, we ask the Commission to keep in mind the unprecedented administrative challenge faced by the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) in 2021, the next regular city election. Forty one Council seats and all citywide and boroughwide offices will be vacant. As many as 300-400 candidates are expected to run for office, which will require CFB to provide extensive candidate services and handle a large volume of post election audits.
Because of this extraordinary work load, Reinvent Albany recommends that major proposed changes to the city’s campaign finance system made by the Commission should be phased in over time. This could be done by limiting the implementation of changes to citywide offices in 2021, or all offices in 2023. The redistricting term of two years from 2022-2023 limits the delay in implementing changes while reducing the burden on the CFB to smoothly administer the 2021 elections. We believe it is better to implement changes smoothly, when CFB has adequate staff time and organizational capacity, rather than overwhelm the agency during an unprecedented election. There is no pressing need to hurry changes in 2021 instead of two year later.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify this evening. I welcome any questions you may have.
Click here to view the testimony as a PDF.