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Government & Politics

Citizens Election Fund Technicality Spurs Calls for Reform in Howard County

Howard County Councilmember Deb Jung (D) says her campaign was denied more than $43,000 public matching funds due to a technicality in county law. Screenshot from Jan. 18 public hearing.

Fair elections advocates say Howard County officials’ decision not to release public campaign funding to candidates based on a technicality in county law could hamper participation in the program.

Howard County’s public campaign finance law generally requires an election be contested for a campaign to receive public matching funds, and stipulates “whether an election is contested shall be determined on the first Tuesday in August preceding an election.”

But Howard County Councilmember Deb Jung (D) didn’t get a primary challenger until December — and county officials have said that technicality in the law means that they can’t distribute funding to Jung.

In refusing to release public matching funds to Jung, Howard County Executive Calvin B. Ball III (D) has interpreted that broad provision to apply to both primary and general elections. That reading of the law means that Jung would’ve needed a primary challenger by Aug. 3, 2021 for the June 28, 2022 primary in order to receive matching funds.

Jung needed to receive at least $10,000 in qualifying donations — of $250 or less from individuals — from at least 125 county residents in order to participate in the matching fund program. Jung qualified to receive matching funds in November. According to campaign finance documents, her campaign has qualified to receive more than $43,000 in matching funds.

Like other public campaign finance programs, Howard County’s Citizens Election Fund is matched on a tiered basis that prioritizes smaller donations. County council candidates who participate receive $5 for every $1 of the first $50 of a donation, $3 for every $1 of the second $50, $1 for every $1 of the third $50, and no matching funds for the rest of a qualifying donation.

A $50 qualifying donation, for example, would be eligible for $250 in matching funds. A $150 donation would garner the same $450 in matching funds as the maximum $250 donations. Jung reported just $9,434 in cash on hand in a Jan. 19 campaign finance report.

One of Jung’s Democratic primary challengers, Janssen E. Evelyn, who worked in county government under both former County Executive Allan H. Kittleman (R) and Ball, reported $46,622 in cash on hand in a Jan. 19 campaign finance report.

Hank Boyd, another Democratic primary challenger to Jung, filed an affidavit declaring his campaign has had less than $1,000 of financial activity since it was created.

Citizens’ Election Fund Commission members were trying to get the matching funds provision clarified months before Jung was denied. Commission Chair Sue Geckle wrote Ball and county council members last October recommending emergency legislation to stipulate that the August deadline is for a general election.

Geckle wrote in a Jan. 11 letter to Howard County Finance Director Rafiu Ighile that “the rightful expectation of candidates is that matching funds would be available during the primary for contested races.”

“While awaiting corrective action through the legislative process the Commission requests that you reconsider and reverse your decision to withhold matching funds to qualified candidates during the primary election,” Geckle wrote. “It is the opinion of the Commission that not releasing funds will harm the program and create uncertainty for candidates wishing to use it, whereas releasing funds does no harm to candidates or the program.”

And Geckle wrote that, if the decision not to release matching funds stands, it would “undermine public trust and confidence in the Citizens Election Fund.”

Ben Bialek, Jung’s campaign manager, said in a letter to Ighile using the first Tuesday in August to determine whether a primary election will be contested “makes no sense” because most candidates don’t file their certificates of candidacy that far in advance. Bialek wrote that there were no contested primary races countywide as of Aug. 3, 2021.

“Clearly, the August 3 deadline was a technical error intended to clarify the date when an election would be … considered contested in the general election, “Bialek wrote. “That date comports with the first business day after the filing deadline for non-major party candidates in a general election context. It has no relevance in a major party primary election. If the August 3 date is construed to apply to a general election only, the law totally works from a statutory construction perspective. Nothing prevents you from freeing the matching funds now and then making the appropriate corrective legislative fixes at the earliest possible time.”

Howard County Councilmember David G. Yungmann (R) introduced legislation earlier this month to strike the “first Tuesday in August preceding the election” provision from the existing law. That proposal was up for a public hearing last week, where fair elections advocates and county residents urged council members to make the change sooner rather than later.

Jung said at that meeting that without the matching funds, “it will be very difficult for me to continue to run this campaign.” She said participating in the Citizens Election Fund and only receiving small, individual donations without the matching funds is akin the “tying your hands behind your back.”

Emily Scarr, the director of Maryland PIRG, said at that hearing that council members should pass Yungmann’s bill as emergency legislation. Scarr said the August deadline makes sense for a general election, but not a primary.

“It’s important that we make this technical fix both for the impact on this election, but also … to avoid the perception that our elected officials are playing politics with the program and the fund,” Scarr said.

Councilmember Christiana Rigby (D) said she’s participating in the Citizens Election Fund, and said she’s waiting on a response from the county’s ethics commission as to whether she can vote on the proposed legislation.

“This change would directly benefit my political campaign,” Rigby said.

Joanne Antoine, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she didn’t think making changes to the program at this late stage is an ethical conflict for council members.

“You are merely correcting what is a technical error,” Antoine said.

Antoine and Scarr noted that Montgomery County passed emergency bills to correct technical issues in their own public campaign financing program in 2017, the year preceding an election.

“These were technical fixes both times that were introduced by members of the council who were using the program, and they received a unanimous vote,” Antoine said.

Kittleman, who is again running for county executive, was among those who testified in support of Yungmann’s bill at the public hearing. Although he vetoed the legislation to set up the county’s public campaign financing program when he was in office over concerns about using taxpayer money to fund the program, Kittleman said he is participating in the Citizens Election Fund during this election cycle. Kittleman argued that Ball has the authority to release the matching funds to Jung.

“There is no doubt that the decision to deny funds to Councilperson Jung has been made by the county executive,” Kittleman said.

Ball said in a statement that he is “wholly supportive of any measure that clarifies the process through which the Citizens’ Election Fund program is administered that is done in a manner that is consistent with the intent of the legislation that created the fund.”

“While we collectively wish we had been alerted of this issue sooner, I am pleased that we are now engaged in our legislative process and can resolve issues as they arise as has been accomplished in our peer jurisdictions that have successfully implemented the program,” Ball said.

Ball, in an official county press release, also slammed his political opponent, writing: “Was it only when Republican candidate Allan Kittleman saw an opportunity to benefit himself that his belief that ‘Our taxes should not go to boost the campaign coffers of any political candidate’ subsided, and his efforts to ‘max out’ the use of taxpayer funds to boost his own campaign coffers began?”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Councilmember David Yungmann’s name.