The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is considering a request by Phil Lloyd, a longtime city campaign treasurer to clarify a question that could have implications for the upcoming (2013) mayoral race: If a candidate for one city office (say, a city council member) wants to run for another city office (say, mayor), can that candidate roll over his or her existing campaign fund into the new campaign without being subject to contribution limits?

Currently, state law allows candidates for state offices to roll over all their campaign funds into a new campaign, with the written permission of each donor, without regard for contribution limits: That is, if a contributor has maxed out to a lawmaker's legislative campaign, for example, they're free to max out again to his campaign for secretary of state.

At the city level, ethics staffers have interpreted the law differently. Although candidates are allowed to roll over their campaign funds (again, with written permission from each donor), the city doesn't allow them to raise more than the maximum ($700 for the city of Seattle) from any one donor, regardless of whether they're running for a completely new office. That policy was decided by commission staff, not the city council or the appointed commission, back in 1996, when then-council member Charlie Chong was running for mayor.

More than 15 years later, the issue is once again germane. Several city council members are reportedly considering a run for mayor, including Tim Burgess, Bruce Harrell, and Sally Clark. If the ethics board rules that candidates' new campaigns aren't bound by the city's maximum-donation restrictions on old campaigns, any council member who runs for mayor would be free to raise up to $1,400, twice the maximum, from any donor between their new and old campaigns.

Which brings us back to Phil Lloyd, the longtime treasurer who's asking the commission to rule on the city's donation policy. He says he isn't concerned about the outcome. He just wants some clarity for his clients---clients who just happen to include both Burgess and Clark. (Lloyd also works for McGinn; Harrell's treasurer is his city council staffer Vinh Tang.) Burgess has more than $76,000 on hand in his council campaign treasury; Clark has more than $58,000 on hand; and Harrell has about $63,000 on hand.

"There's this great inconsistency between city law and state law, and it gets arbitrated at the staff level," Lloyd says. "Because the city laws are not all that well written or easy to interpret, the staff tends to interpret them the way they want to interpret them. I was using [the request for clarification] as a way to force the issue."

Commission member Bill Sherman says he thinks staffers do a good job interpreting the city's ethics laws (which he also says "I wish had been written more clearly"). "I think we have a really effective professional staff and it's their job all the time to interpret the laws." Sherman says he's waiting to hear what other commissioners have to say before deciding how to interpret the transfer rule. The commission is supposed to take up Lloyd's request at its meeting next month; however, it could end up spending much or all of the meeting on its proposed rewrite of the city's whistleblower code, which took up all of this month's meeting.
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