During the 2017 election, there was at least one candidate for municipal office in Salt Lake County who purportedly ran a campaign without spending a single penny, according to an analysis of public disclosures by the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s Office.
And that’s a problem, according to West Valley City Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher, because any municipal candidate in the county would have been required to pay a filing fee.
“How do you send out a mailer? How do you put up a sign?” Thatcher said. “How do you file to run for office and have no expenditures?”
Thatcher on Wednesday raised the issue for the second time in as many months, urging his colleagues on the Government Operations Interim Committee to take seriously the issue of incomplete and inadequate municipal campaign disclosures.
He said it’s likely that some candidates — particularly in rural areas that don’t charge a filing fee — can make it to Election Day without fundraising or campaign spending. But anecdotes and state figures suggest others are failing to disclose political activities that the law mandates be made public, he said.
“The issue before us is, do we care?” Thatcher said. “And I think we need to. I think if someone is running for office we need to know where those contributions are coming from.”
Thatcher first called for a review of disclosures last month during a hearing in which the senator raised anonymous and unsubstantiated accusations that a city-employed lobbyist in Utah was paying kickbacks in the form of campaign contributions to members of their city council.
Thatcher said a resident had alerted him to these suspicions of the lobbyist’s actions. While he was unable to either prove or disprove the allegations, Thatcher said he checked the council member’s public disclosure forms, only to find them blank.
“It’s pretty damning if it’s true,” Thatcher said at the time, "and there’s absolutely no evidence.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Thatcher shared a breakdown of disclosure sampling prepared by Derek Brenchley, Deputy Director of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. The sampling showed that blank disclosures were particularly common in lower population areas, with three-fourths of candidates in Utah towns reporting zero spending and zero contributions.
Brenchley said that it’s common for a candidate to recycle materials — like yard signs — from prior campaigning, cutting down on expenses, while others mistakenly believe that they need not disclose spending for self-funded campaigns.
“It looks worse than it probably is,” Brenchley said.
And Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said that Utah frequently sees “candidates in name only” who file their candidacy but do not actively campaign.
Diehl suggested that it is up to city and county governments to ensure that candidates are keeping the rules of city and county elections. It would be inappropriate, he said, for the state to intervene in those municipal affairs.
“It’s the responsibility of local governments to run local elections,” Diehl said.
But while Thatcher did not repeat the allegations from last month’s meetings, he questioned the ability of election officials in smaller cities and towns to hold their employers accountable for election law violations, especially in areas where “the nepotism rules don’t apply.”
“If you’re the city clerk, you’re probably going to have some concerns going to the mayor and telling them, ‘Mr. Mayor, I could remove you from the ballot if you don’t do your disclosures’,” Thatcher said.
Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, suggested that rural campaigns don’t involve the big-money politics of their urban counterparts. A rural city or county candidate, he said, might campaign by sending mass emails for free, or borrowing a neighbor’s wagon and decorating it with toilet paper to appear in a parade.
“That’s just not their mindset, they’re not thinking about spending a bunch of money to get a political office,” Lyman said. “They’re willing to serve and they go out and throw their name in.”
Lyman said there are lots of problems with Utah political campaigns, like “dirty” advertisements and dark money from undisclosed sources. But he suggested that blank disclosures in small city and town elections is not a pressing concern.
“It seems like there’s a lot of problems much more serious than what we’re talking about here,” he said.
Thatcher said he’d like the committee to continue discussing the issue, adding that even self-funded campaigns are required to identify the sources of their capital, and what it's being used for.
“If there is someone who is expending money to convince us to support a measure or an issue or a candidate,” he said, “then I believe the public has a right to know who is lobbying, who is paying for that work.”