As part of a long meeting yesterday, the New York City Council voted overwhelmingly, 47-1, to pass Int. 978, a bill that would exempt member organizations and corporations from disclosing member-to-member communications in relation to candidates or issues that they support during an election year. The passage is a victory for unions, corporations, and other membership organizations, who were previously allowed such communications with their members or shareholders before the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) promulgated changes to the city Charter in 2010.
The Campaign Finance Board had previously testified before the Council against the bill, believing that its passage would open the door to more undetected spending in city elections. A spokesman for the CFB reiterated this position after the bill was passed this afternoon.
“This is not what the public expected when it voted for disclosure of independent spending in 2010,” said a CFB spokesman. “Our rules were carefully written to give the public a view of independent spending in elections, including some of the spending that membership organizations make to promote candidates to their members, or that corporations make to promote candidates to their shareholders.”
However, Susan Lerner, executive director of the good government watchdog group Common Cause New York, praised the bill’s passage as a necessary change for membership organizations to galvanize their members during an election cycle.
“This is the way in which a representative democracy should function with the City Council exerting oversight to clarify important sections of the law,” Lerner said. “Membership organizations as wide and varied as the NRA, NARAL, and 1199 must be allowed to communicate with their willing members about the issues they collectively care about.”
The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, nearly passed with a unanimous vote, but Councilman Lew Fidler decided to vote against it. Fidler explained that his “nay” vote wasn’t necessarily a reflection of the language that’s in the bill, but the language that’s not in the bill. He said that, ironically, smaller membership organizations such as political clubs would not be included in the exemption, and that he couldn’t be a party to it as a result. Fidler leads the 41st A.D. Democratic Club in Brooklyn.
“The Campaign Finance Board rule [from 2010, governing member communications] itself was grossly overreaching,” Fidler said. “When dealing with member organizations and member-to-member communications, that’s an inappropriate exercise of jurisdiction by the Campaign Finance Board. It may be political activity but it’s member political activity. What this bill does is it excludes from that jurisdiction some member organizations but not all. The irony is it’s the smaller organizations that have been excluded from the bill.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg was noncomittal about whether he would veto the legislation, despite the Council clearly having enough votes to override one, but indicated that the mayor was less than enthused by the bill’s passage.
“The Mayor agrees with the Campaign Finance Board – the bill will only weaken the City’s strong campaign disclosure laws and he sees no reason why unions shouldn’t be held to the same standard as others who are advancing candidates for elective office.”