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How You Can Help Rewrite Austin's Confusing, Outdated Campaign Finance Rules

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Some Austin City Council candidates before the city's ballot selection in August of 2014.

The city's Ethics Review Commission (ERC) is looking for ways to update Austin’s campaign finance rules for two simple reasons.

One, the language is very complicated. And two, the limits that are in place haven't been updated in a long time. The ERC is meeting tonight to hear from Austinites about how to spruce up the rules.

Anyone with ideas as to how the ERC can make the language on campaign finance rules more understandable, can post those ideas at or can attend the public meeting at City Hall at 7 p.m.

The first goal of making the language used for the ethical rules that candidates must adhere to simpler, makes one wonder just how complex is the current language?

Austin Kaplan is chair of the city's Ethics Review Commission. He offers an example of the complexity.

"[The ERC] passed on a lobbying ordinance recently and [it] is a really complicated ordinance with lots and lots of definitions that are difficult for people to follow," Kaplan says.

When Austinites bring a candidate before the ERC to determine whether or not that candidate violated campaign finance rules, commissioners must study the language in the resolution and determine if a violation took place based on what the resolution says.

But, Kaplan says, sometimes it's difficult, even for commissioners "to follow the ordinance when trying to decide whether a violation has occurred." He says if commissioners struggle with the language, it's likely candidates struggle as well.

Peter Einhorn is vice chair of the commission.

He says the commission received many complaints this past campaign season. He says a number of complaints were driven in part by the sheer number of candidates who ran for city council. More than 70 people were running at the time.

But there's another reason as well.

"Most of the time," Einhorn says, "the errors were just a lack of understanding."

After a candidate was called out for the mistake, they would admit their wrongdoing and promptly correct it. During this past election cycle, however, none of the cases the ERC reviewed had to be escalated or recommended for prosecution.

At tonight's round of reviews, the ERC will only focus on the language used and the limits set on the city's campaign finance rules.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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