Monday, September 18, 2006

Undermining the Political Process

Earlier we posted a list of direct contributors to "Citizens for a Better Sarasota," an Electioneering Committee whose purpose was to distort the record of one candidate for County Commission through televised attack ads. The contributors to this attack ad campaign are all from the development and construction businesses of Sarasota.

Many of these contributors are well known within the community and some currently hold leadership positions in prominent organizations.

Prominent among these are:

Tom Dabney - Chair Elect for the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce,
Charles Githler - Board Member of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Sarasota CRA Advisory Board Member
John Cox - Board Member of the Economic Development Council of Sarasota
Kathryn Carr - Board Member of Argus Foundation

Attack ads are known to be persuasive in political campaigns. They also seriously undermine the election process as they hide the sponsors names until after the election thus depriving the voters of information on which to evaluate the ads, they often present mis-truths or highly distorted information and they lead to high levels of voter cynicism concerning government. This is exactly what happened in the Sarasota County Commissioner Primary election - exactly what these "community leaders" wanted to happen.

When leaders of prominent community organizations engage in underhanded activities like this, it casts serious doubt on the organization that accepts their leadership. I have asked two of the organizations whether they have an ethics policy and whether these actions are consistent with such a policy. The only response has been:

All Chamber members, including directors and officers, are free to make contributions as private citizens to whatever entities they wish. It would seem unethical for the Chamber to legislate against freedom of choice and expression.

A call from the EDC echoed the same thought. What our leaders do on their time is not our concern. (What's done in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas?) It was also noted that Mr Cox was no longer a board member of the EDC - he had not been able to attend meetings.

Many citizens bemoan the fact that voting turnout continues to decline. With actions such as this funded by these "community leaders" it is no wonder that voters are very cynical about big money interests controlling the elections and those elected. It will not be surprising when citizens become even more cynical about the aims of these organizations as they try to influence public policy.

With the thought of an elected mayor in Sarasota (even with little power) we really need to consider the "Electioneering Committee" groups that would likely try to influence any mayoral election. Even putting limits on individuals for campaign funds (currently $200 for county elections and $500 for city elections) would not slow the Electioneering Committees and PACS. The Electioneering Committees apparently have a limit of $5000 per person or organization - but as we know from the recent experience this can easily be avoided when someone has multiple organizations which can make donations.

Since timing of these donations can be controlled so the donors are not known until after the election a serious undermining of the democratic process occurs.

When our community's leading organizations refuse to take a stand about the ethics of this behavior, it casts a strong shadow of doubt on the ability to have open and fair elections - including potentially an elected mayor. Maybe our current system spreads the risk of false information affecting elections enough and we should stick with our current system to minimize the opportunity for special interests to alter election through false and misleading advertising.

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