Campaign Contribution Restrictions Need To Go Further

The City Attorney put forth a proposal to restrict contributions made by people who have pending zoning case to the mayor or councilmembers.  The proposal would prevent zoning applicants from contributing to councilmembers 60 days before zoning notices are mailed out and 60 days after the council votes on the matter.

I think this is a necessary and important reform.  But, again, we need to go further if we want to reduce the appearance of impropriety or the risk of corruption.

Zoning cases aren’t the only matters where significant financial interests are at stake.  Tax abatements, TIF project requests, housing tax credits, contracts with the City of Dallas — all of these matters have very serious monetary consequences for the applicant.  So why not expand the proposed contribution limitations to include these matters as well?

As for the timeframe on the restriction:  sixty days is too short, especially when zoning cases often begin up to a year before zoning notices are sent out (the trigger for the 60 days).  So a zoning application may be on file, that applicant may contribute to a councilmember’s campaign, and then several months later the council actually hears the case.  The 60-day time period wasn’t violated, but there may still be an appearance of impropriety.  Instead, we should restrict contributions to a year before the application is made to the city and a year after a decision is made.  Similar triggers would need to be determined for the other matters decided by the council (TIF requests, tax credits, etc.).  I would not object to placing the same restrictions on non-incumbent council candidates, not just officeholders, to ensure a level playing field.

This would most likely have a chilling effect on contributions to councilmembers — who can predict when they will bring a zoning case before the city, bid on a city contract, or request TIF funds? — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  We don’t need the appearance of a “pay to play” system in Dallas, and broadening the scope of the issues covered by this reform, as well as expanding the time limitation, will go a long way in reducing the appearance of impropriety and helping the City of Dallas regain the public trust.