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Debate unfolds over campaign finance rules in Pittsburgh mayoral race

| Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 6:24 p.m.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, City Councilwoman Darlene Harris and the Rev. John Welch are competing in the Democratic primary for mayor.

A Pittsburgh mayoral candidate is questioning the legality of campaign finance rules the city adopted in 2015, and the city is behind schedule in complying with a key aspect of the rules.

Pittsburgh's new Ethics Hearing Board hasn't posted online campaign finance data for candidates running for city office as required under the ordinance, but the office's manager said a database should be online soon.

“It's a priority. It's much more complicated than just posting it on our website. We're trying to make sure the database complies with the city code and is user-friendly,” said Linda King, the Executive Hearing Board's executive manager.

Although the database hasn't made its way onto the board's website, two of the three Democrats running for mayor submitted reports to the office detailing their campaign finance activities in January and February, according to records obtained by the Tribune-Review.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who is seeking a second term, raised $6,926 during the year's first two months, spent $76,541 and had $767,077 on hand at the end of February, records show.

The Rev. John C. Welch, one of two Democrats challenging Peduto in the primary, raised $19,500, spent $8,758 and had $10,742 on hand.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris, the other challenger, had not filed any reports with the Ethics Review Board as of Wednesday afternoon.

“This campaign is less 24 hours old, so we're still in the process of taking a look at all of the requirements. With respect to the city law, is it even legally relevant? That's a big question for us to ruminate over,” said former county councilman and state Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn, who is advising Harris' campaign.

Harris abstained from voting on the 2015 ordinance, while council's eight other members approved it.

Councilman Dan Gilman, one of the ordinance's cosponsors, called Burn's claims “beyond ridiculous.” He said the city's old campaign finance rules favored incumbents, whom he said could use the power of their incumbency to raise significantly more money than a typical challenger. Arguing against campaign finance reform “flies in the face of progressive liberal politics,” Gilman added.

Gilman said he felt it was “unethical” to raise money to run for one office and then use that money to run for another office.

Under the ordinance, which laid out a series of campaign finance rules changes, candidates for city office are required to submit campaign finance reports “on the first business day of each of the five months prior to election day.”

The primary is May 16.

Candidates are expected to begin complying with the rule after publicly announcing their candidacies or filing nominating petitions to run, King said. After mulling whether she would run for mayor, Harris didn't formally enter the race until filing her nominating petitions Tuesday afternoon — meaning that, under the ordinance, she wouldn't be required to submit a report until April 1. Nothing would prevent her, however, from submitting a report sooner.

It appears that Harris needs to create a mayoral campaign committee first, according to the city ordinance, which prohibits candidates from using a campaign committee that was previously created to run for one city office to run for a different office.

According to a report filed with the county's Elections Division, the existing Darlene Harris Election Committee had $25,903 on hand as of Dec. 31, 2016. In a box that reads “Name of Office Sought by Candidate,” Harris wrote Pittsburgh City Council District 1.

State campaign finance law permits candidates to amend the name of an existing committee or the office being sought, but Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said candidates “are not required to change either the name or the office sought.” However, Pittsburgh's ordinance specifically bars candidates from “amending an existing candidate committee and assigning it and the funds associated with it for the use in support of a different campaign for city elected office than it was originally intended.”

Further, the local ordinance states that candidates can't simply unload all the funds from an existing campaign committee into a newly created one to run for a different office. Such transfers can't exceed limits spelled out by the Federal Election Commission, under the city's ordinance. Individual donors can give a candidate up to $2,700 per election, while candidate committees can donate up to $2,000 per election to another committee, according to FEC guidelines.

In a challenge to campaign finance regulations adopted more than a decade ago in Philadelphia, the state Supreme Court held that “there was no issue of preemption by state law and Philadelphia was free as a home-rule municipality to enact campaign regulations governing campaign contributions to candidates for municipal office,” according to the Department of State. Pittsburgh is a home-rule municipality.

“We're going to be in compliance with the things we need to be in compliance with,” Burn said. “The city law was allegedly well-intended, but it was definitely poorly written.”

Burn added, “When you look at this law, it looks like some sort of firewall to protect incumbents.”

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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