Evanston’s Board of Ethics tonight is set to dip into the controversial issue of campaign contributions.
The board will consider a proposal from two residents to ban anyone seeking a zoning change from giving money to the campaigns of mayoral and aldermanic candidates.
The complaint, from Nick Agnew and Clare Kelly Delgado, also makes more specific allegations against Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, that likely won’t get anywhere.
They suggest that Tendam violated the city ethics code’s gift ban by accepting a $1,000 campaign contribution from billionaire developer Col. James N. Pritzker.
But anyone reading the ethics code can see that it specifically exempts legal campaign contributions from the gift ban provision.
They also argue, without presenting any credible evidence so far, that Tendam missed a state deadline for reporting the Pritzker contribution.
They claim he had to report the contribution within 48-hours — but state law gives candidates five business days to report contributions at the time period the Pritzker gift is reported to have arrived, and Tendam’s campaign filing report indicates he met the deadline.
While some change in current rules may be appropriate, the ban on contributions, as proposed, seems both overly harsh and underinclusive.
It completely denies the right to engage in activity that Supreme Court has identified as constitutionally protected speech to a person seeking change, while permitting unlimited spending by those opposed to that change.
And it bars those seeking one type of change from political participation — while failing to reach many other types of governmental activity — like the award of contracts — that are at least equally subject to the potential for the corrupting influence of money.
Other schemes for imposing more even-handed restrictions limits on campaign donations may merit consideration.
For example, Chicago limits anyone doing business with the city to $3,000 a year in contributions to any candidate for office — a provision that recently tripped up an alderman there who — unknowingly, he says — received gifts that, when combined, topped the limit from three different businesses owned by the same person.
When it comes to zoning, clearly someone seeking a zoning change has a financial interest in the outcome. But others may have a financial interest as well — such as those who own competing businesses to the one seeking the zoning change.
Unless the city can find a way to keep the playing field for political contributions level for all sides in zoning disputes, it would be well advised to not mess with the existing rules.