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Church State Issues

Peoria may ban some people from political process

Oct 15, 2014

Arizona Republic

First Amendment null and void in Peoria, Arizona???

I suspect that it already is illegal for elected officials to vote on issues where there is a conflict of interest. I think they are required to say they have a conflict of interest and not vote. But don't count on our royal government rulers obeying the law when it gets in the way of giving our money to their special interest groups.

Jackee Coe, The Republic | 7:26 a.m. MST October 15, 2014

Leaders of some non-profit organizations in Peoria would be barred from running for local office, making campaign contributions and even endorsing City Council candidates under a proposal working its way through City Hall.

Such prohibitions, which appear to be the first of their kind in Arizona, would apply to directors, executives and managers of organizations that receive a portion of their funding from the city, said Councilman Ben Toma, who proposed the policy that has been fast-tracked by the City Council.

One of Toma's competitors in the November election heads such an organization, though the proposal would not affect her candidacy.

First Amendment experts and other critics of the plan call it an unconstitutional violation of individual rights and an attack on a competitor, but Toma said it is an effort to avoid conflicts of interest.

"When you're running the whole organization and you start giving hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars to ... a particular candidate, even if it's a foregone conclusion, the issue is you've now given money to a candidate that will probably be voting and setting your budget for the next year or negotiating your contract," Toma said. "To me, that's a dangerous place to be."

Mayor Bob Barrett and First Amendment experts said banning individuals from participating in the political process violates their constitutional rights.

"Everybody has a right to support any political action or activity that they want to," Barrett said.

"A personal donation is not an action by (an organization)."

Barrett said Toma, who was appointed in June to fill a vacancy in the Mesquite District and is running for the seat, proposed the policy to make "life miserable" for Bridget Binsbacher, who works for a Peoria non-profit.

Barrett has endorsed Binsbacher.

First Amendment attorney Dan Barr said the proposed policy violates the U.S. Constitution.

"The people who are running these non-profits can make their own decisions about whether it's in their interest or not to make such donations. But it's not for the city of Peoria to determine that," Barr said.

"And given the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the areas of campaign finance in the past few years, I'm pretty confident that such a restriction would be struck down as unconstitutional."

City staff members still are working on a framework of the policy, Deputy City Manager Jeff Tyne said. They will present that to City Council members, who will determine the specifics of that policy before voting on it.

Some organizations that receive financial benefits from the city include the West Valley Art Museum, which is housed in Peoria City Hall; Theater Works, which operates the city-owned Peoria Center for the Performing Arts; and the Peoria Diamond Club, which runs the box office at the Peoria Sports Complex and donates hundreds of volunteer hours every year during spring training.

Binsbacher is the executive director of the Peoria Diamond Club.

Federal law prohibits all 501(c)3 organizations from engaging in any political activity, but does not limit individuals who work for non-profits, City Attorney Steve Kemp said.

Peoria has policies prohibiting certain people who contract with the city from participating in city elections, but it does not have one for leaders of non-profits.

Toma called that an "obvious loophole" that needs to be closed.

The Peoria Diamond Club has gotten "significantly involved" in city politics, he said, because of Binsbacher's candidacy.

"There's really no difference" between an individual if they are a leader of a partner non-profit and the non-profit itself, Toma said, because the non-profits are "basically entirely dependent upon the city for their funding and for their existence."

"Ultimately, the question is 'Who's paying the person?' and what it comes down to in the Peoria Diamond Club's case is that the city is paying for (Binsbacher's) salary," Toma said. "To me, that would make you unqualified to run for and hold public office."

Toma said he's not making a political attack, but acknowledged Binsbacher's candidacy "brought the issue to light to me."

Brian Derrick, board president for the Peoria Diamond Club, disputed Toma's funding claims and called the proposal "asinine."

He said the organization receives $64,000 annually from the city, which is a portion of spring-training profits. Its total expenses in 2012, according to the most recent tax documents, were about $400,000.

Binsbacher's salary is paid from funds the non-profit raises through donations and charity events, not the proceeds from the city, Derrick said.

"These are not issues he would bring up if Bridget wasn't in the election," he said.

"It's just part of his campaign to weaken an opponent. It's just politics. It's dirty politics at a local level."

Binsbacher, who has said she would resign from her job if elected, said she felt the proposed policy was directed at her.

She said the proposed policy could impact "every candidate that's ever run for public office."

"These contributions and the support come from relationships that have been established over the years of working together ... and a long history of being involved in the community," Binsbacher said.

Toma acknowledged concerns about limiting individuals' rights, but said that is not his goal.

People sometimes voluntarily surrender some rights to do certain things, such as going into a public building where guns are prohibited. This, he said, would be no different.

"The point is not to take away their rights," Toma said. "They have a right to do whatever they want. They have a right not to work there if they want to get involved in politics."

Toma and Binsbacher are in a three-way race that includes Ken Krieger, a candidate whose name twice was left off the ballot.

The November election will serve as a primary, with a run-off election in March, if necessary.