City campaign laws inconsistently followed

By Laura Tillman/The Associated Press

JACKSON — City clerks are required to collect campaign finance reports during local elections throughout Mississippi and deliver that information to Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office, but Hosemann said he only receives the information sporadically.

The law is designed to create greater transparency in local elections, making it possible to see where a candidate for mayor or alderman has raised campaign money.

“We do train the municipal clerks and emphasize that they shall forward the copies. All of that said, we do not receive all of the filings,” Hosemann said.

He said his office posts campaign finance reports online for officials elected on the state level, but it would be impractical to post reports for local officials. Local campaigns are often too small to warrant the expense of processing, verifying and posting all of the reports, he said.

City clerks are not penalized for failing to collect candidates’ finance reports, but there are provisions in the law that could potentially be used to punish elected officials who fail to file.

According to the law, candidates are not considered officially nominated or elected unless they file the finance reports. Additionally, elected officials who do not file the reports are not allowed to receive a salary for the office. Because Hosemann’s office doesn’t monitor the local reports, it’s unclear whether any officials are being penalized for failing to turn them in.

The Associated Press conducted an informal search for campaign finance reports in municipalities with recent local elections. Each city clerk had different requirements for obtaining a report if the request was not made in person.

The city clerk’s office in Natchez listed a fee of $85 per hour for printouts of computer records. The office in Crystal Springs said there was no online method for the public to request the reports, and a request would have to be mailed to a city post office box. The Greenville clerk’s office said it had not received any campaign finance reports for candidates in the most recent race, a 2012 special election for mayor.

Hosemann said that while it would not be practical for his office to process and post all of the finance reports from the state’s 297 municipalities, most clerks can and should post them on their own websites.

“Almost all towns have a page that the city maintains,” Hosemann said. “The clerk should add that information to the website.”

Responding to the fact that one municipal clerk did not have campaign finance reports for a recent election, Hosemann said the local workers “should be doing their job,” but a spokesman for Hosemann added that the secretary of state has no statutory authority to compel clerks to comply.

Ultimately, it appears the public must demand campaign finance data for local elections to ensure that it has been collected and is accessible. In municipalities where citizens demand access to the data, it could be provided, and might motivate clerks, in turn, to demand reports from candidates who fail to submit them. As clerks increasingly have access to city websites, they can also choose to share the information with the public at no cost, though they are not obligated to do so.

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Laura Tillman covers Mississippi government for The Associated Press. She is based in Jackson.

More information about transparency in government and the activities of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information can be found online at www.mcfoi.org.