Monday, August 31, 2009

Maryland’s Administrator for Life, Part One

Suppose a local bill (a bill affecting only one county) gets the unanimous support of its local government, the unanimous support of its county delegation in Annapolis and is passed by the House of Delegates by 135-0. You would think it would be headed for the Governor’s desk, right?

Not if it’s a campaign finance reform bill and Linda Lamone get winds of it.

HB 825, a Montgomery Delegation bill originally sponsored by Delegate Susan Lee (D-16) last spring, would have allowed the Montgomery County Council to pass additional disclosure requirements for contributors to County Executive and County Council races. One such additional requirement could be disclosure of an individual contributor’s employer, as is currently required at the federal level, or of a business contributor’s parent company. This could help unlock use of the LLC loophole, which is frequently used by contributors (often developers) to avoid the state’s contribution limits. Because Montgomery County is a jurisdiction in which at-large County Council races now cost $300,000 or more and County Executive races go into the million-dollar territory, scrutiny of campaign finance is becoming more critical. Recognizing that, the County Executive, the County Council, Common Cause of Maryland, the League of Women Voters, Progressive Maryland and the Montgomery County Civic Federation all lined up behind Lee’s bill.

The only entity to oppose the bill was the State Board of Elections (SBE), represented by Administrator Linda Lamone. If Comptroller Peter Franchot is the most hated man in Annapolis, Lamone may very well be the most hated woman. Originally appointed by Governor Parris Glendening in 1997, Lamone had worked as a lobbyist in the Schaefer administration but had never headed up a local Board of Elections.

Shortly after her appointment, complaints cropped up about a flawed uniform computer system for counties and vanishing registration records. But nothing provoked more ire than SBE’s horrendous ELECTrack campaign finance reporting system. A 2001 Gazette article chronicled a litany of protests:

“I’m from the ghetto in East Baltimore,” said Del. Clarence Davis (D-Dist. 45) of Baltimore. “People don't have computers. ... My treasurer's got a computer at work, but he can't use it [to file the campaign finance report].”

Other complaints are more complex. Some treasurers simply couldn't get the software to work properly. Others found to their dismay that the new system was not compatible to the computer databases they had been using for years, making the transfer of information impossible. Others found that the software limited their ability to list or organize information they way they wanted to, whether it was by ZIP code, donation size, union affiliation or something else.

“My treasurer is a very sophisticated mathematician,” said Del. Martha S. Klima (R-Dist. 9) of Lutherville. “He's a CPA. He's been cursing the system.”

Joe Shannon, campaign treasurer to Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Dist. 28) of Waldorf, said the system burdens candidates and treasurers who are trying to meet deadlines and don't want to be embarrassed by late fees and other potential penalties.

“People who are really trying to be compliant are a bit terrorized,” he said.

Shannon said board staffers have tried to be helpful but erred by not bringing in a group of treasurers to test the software.

“You hate to say it, but it almost to some degree may prevent people from considering public service,” he said of the electronic filing requirements.
When the House of Delegates tried to require SBE to provide regular reports about new voting machines and improving campaign finance software, Lamone replied, “I don't think that the language is needed at all.” “That’s how she operates,” one of our informants told us. “Her first response is that a problem is not a problem. Her second response is that it’s somebody else’s fault.”

We’ll learn more about Lamone’s career in Part Two.