Portland’s elections office will not be penalizing candidates in upcoming races for defying local campaign finance limits, which remain in legal limbo until the Oregon Supreme Court weighs in.
The office's decision closes the first chapter on a push by Honest Elections, a local campaign finance reform group, to force candidates to cap the individual contributions they receive at $500. The group had filed three complaints with the city auditor in December accusing Mayor Ted Wheeler, city council candidate Jack Kerfoot and mayoral candidate Ozzie Gonzalez of flouting the contribution limits passed overwhelmingly by voters last year.
On Friday, the city dismissed the complaints, noting a Multnomah County judge had struck down the limits a few months after voters approved them. Judge Eric. J Bloch had ruled they violated an old Oregon Supreme Court decision that held donations to be a form of free speech.
The state Supreme Court is considering overturning that decision, and the legality of Portland's campaign finance limits – as well as those passed by Multnomah County in 2016 – hinges on the outcome. But, in their complaints, Honest Elections had contended that even though the legality of the city's campaign limits may be in question, no lower court had ever issued an injunction against them. And, therefore, they argued, the rules remained in effect.
The city didn’t buy it.
In her dismissal, Deborah Scroggin, the city elections officer, wrote that Portland will not touch the issue of local campaign finance limits while the Oregon Supreme Court decision is pending.
“The Auditor’s Office intends to uphold the will and intent of the voters in implementing campaign finance restrictions,” Scroggin wrote. “However, we will not be enforcing, investigating, or acting on complaints regarding provisions of the Charter that are currently being litigated and have been held unconstitutional.”
Jason Kafoury, an attorney and Honest Elections member who helped craft the complaints, said the group expected as much. The group now plans to appeal the decision with the Multnomah County Circuit Court.
This, he hopes, will launch a legal battle unpleasant enough that candidates shy away from large donations altogether – all before the state supreme court weighs in.
“We're trying to push a decision,” Kafoury said. “We're also trying to change behavior. I mean, by forcing the candidates to hire lawyers, spend money and go to battle, the easier thing to do would be to just follow the will of the % of the Portland voters that want this to be in effect.”
Kafoury said Honest Elections will file the new complaint in the next few weeks.