Election finance rules catch candidates unaware

A host of electoral candidates seeking office on South Whidbey this year will be getting formal warning letters from the Washington Public Disclosure Commission next week.

A statutory 14-day grace period that follows the close of filing week has passed yet, as of Friday morning, no candidates had filed with the organization despite being required to do by state law.

“They not only have to file a personal finance statement but they also have to register a campaign,” said Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the commission. “It’s that registration that tells the world if they are going to raise or spend  money.”

Established by voter initiative in the 1970s, the commission was created to “provide timely and meaningful public access to accurate information about the financing of political campaigns, lobbyist expenditures, and the financial affairs of public officials and candidates, and to ensure compliance with and equitable enforcement of Washington’s disclosure and campaign finance laws,” according the commission’s website.

The rules apply to election areas with at least 1,000 registered and active voters, which automatically excludes Langley candidates. While the city has the only contested races on the South End in this year’s primary and general elections, it’s exempt with only 865 active voters, according to figures supplied by the Island County Auditor’s Office.

The South Whidbey School District, South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District, Port of South Whidbey and South Whidbey Fire/EMS are well over the threshold, however, with 11,957 active voters. Anyone seeking offices in those districts are required to register their bids with the commission.

They include the following candidates: Linda Racicot, Damian Greene, Julie Haddon and Shawn Nowlin for school board; Ed Halloran and Jack Ng for the port commission; Don Wood and Dennis Hunter for parks and recreation; and Frank Mestemacher for the fire district.

Many of the candidates were alarmed to learn that they might receive warning letters, saying they believed they had already filed the appropriate paperwork with the agency. Incumbents in particular voiced surprise, saying they filed annual reports with the commission this spring as they have every year during their terms.

“No, I did it back in April,” Greene said. “I’m sure everyone did it.”

“I did it months ago,” echoed Racicot.

“I’m 100 percent sure I did that,” Hadden said.

Nowlin, the only non-incumbent running for school board, said in a phone message to The Record that she mailed in her paperwork.

Wood, who’s held office on the parks district for eight years, said he also believed he’d filed several months ago.   Political newcomer Dennis Hunter, also running for a seat on the parks commission, said he wasn’t aware of the requirements and would contact the state agency right away.

“Little did I know,” Hunter said. “I’ll move forward and take care of business.”

Halloran and Ng, both incumbents, and Mestemacher could not be reached for comment in time for this story.

Anderson confirmed that the commission had not received the appropriate filings from any of the South Whidbey candidates. She made it clear that annual reports required of sitting elected officials are different from those required for people who are seeking election or re-election. She did say, however, that mailed filings can take longer than usual.

None of the above races are contested, and candidates running unopposed usually don’t need to raise much money for political campaigns. Nevertheless, Anderson said the rules still apply and are in place for good reason.

“Washington really celebrates its open government… this just gives the public the chance to see whether they are or are not raising money,” she said.

While Langley’s registered voter count exempts candidates from filing, they will have to begin reporting contributions if they exceed $5,000.

As for next week’s letters, Anderson said they are “official” reminders that candidates must comply with the state’s election/campaign finance laws. If the warnings go unheeded, candidates will be issued a hearing date and possibly face monetary fines.