Thursday the County Council interviewed seven candidates for a five-member independent citizens committee that will recommend the amount of money the county should allocate to its new public election fund.
In October, the council unanimously approved campaign reform legislation that created an opt-in funding system where county executive and council candidates can leverage individuals’ small donations up to $150 to receive public money.
But estimates regarding the costs to taxpayers vary widely. Montgomery County Finance Director Joseph Beach estimated that if the public funding system existed before, the 2010 Democratic primary would have cost $9.6 million and the 2006 primary would have cost $13 million. On the lower end, advocacy organization Common Cause estimated the 2014 primary would have cost taxpayers $2.5 million.
The independent citizen committee will recommend how much money the council should appropriate to the fund each year. To protect against partisanship, no more than three members of one political party can serve on the committee.
After interviewing four Democrats and three Republicans Thursday, the council will make appointments this month and committee members will begin four-year terms May 1 – three years ahead of the 2018 county elections, the first time the fund is available.
During the public interviews, Council President George Leventhal asked each candidate the same five questions – including a question about past budgeting experience – while Councilmember Nancy Navarro asked each candidate about their understanding of the county’s current fiscal situation.
Republican candidates include history professor Lee Annis, health care lobbyist Sharon Cohen and engineer and professor Issa Khozeimeh. When asked about their experience reviewing past expenses to estimate future expenses – committee members’ central responsibility – Annis said he has very limited experience, Cohen said she has worked with federal budgets and Khozeimeh said he has performed similar tasks as a company manager.
Democratic candidates include retired government worker Margaret Greene, attorney Stephen Mortellaro, former federal worker Paul Schwartz and attorney David Scull. When asked the same question about budgeting experience, Greene said she’s somewhat knowledgeable through her work with Common Cause, Mortellaro said he’s allocated money at his college, Schwartz said he’s worked with appropriators and managed money in the government and Scull outlined how he would estimate the election funds budget.
Councilmember Craig Rice said in addition to budgetary responsibilities, the citizen committee will also research similar funding systems, promote the program to the community, make adjustments in case state law affects the fund and justify its recommendation with solid evidence.
The council received 10 applications and narrowed the field to seven interviewees based on the resumes candidates submitted. The legislation stipulates that County Executive Ike Leggett can recommend two candidates for the committee. Leggett officially recommended Greene and Scull before Thursday’s interviews.
Former councilmember Paul Andrews sponsored the legislation, which supporters argue will de-emphasize the influence of corporate money and large donors, bring more candidates into the fold and allow candidates to spend less time fundraising. All councilmembers co-sponsored the bill.
Candidates seeking public funds must collect enough seed money to qualify. For example, county executive candidates can opt in to the system only after they raise $40,000 from 500 separate donors. Then, each donor’s donation up to $150 will be matched with taxpayer money, at a 6-1 rate for donations $50 and under, 4-1 for the next $50 and 2-1 for the final $50.
If a county executive candidate successfully raises enough seed money, each individual donation of $150 will get them an additional $600 from taxpayers – $300 for the first $50, $200 for the second 50, and $100 for the third $50. The system is similar with council candidates, but with lower rates.