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Political reports may put clerks on the spot

New law forces elected local officials to file financial disclosures locally or face fines

POSTED: May 4, 2013 12:59 a.m.

Gainesville City Clerk Denise Jordan said she is uncomfortable imposing and collecting fees from elected officials as part of the new reporting requirements that will take effect Jan. 1.

The Georgia Municipal Clerks and Finance Officers Association sent a letter in March to the Georgia House of Representatives expressing concern about the “awkward” position clerks will be in having to impose and collect penalties on local elected officials, some of which have hiring and firing authority over clerks.

The association also expressed concern with compliance and enforcement issues if candidates and elected officials don’t file their reports in a timely manner.

“I think most people would be uncomfortable with it, too, if they were having to impose a fee on their superiors in their jobs,” Jordan said. “I think that would be the position for most people.”

The law changes where local officials file campaign and financial disclosure reports to the local level. It is currently done directly with the state ethics commission, now known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, either electronically or by paper.

Starting Jan. 1, city and county staff will file one report locally and transmit another copy electronically to the state commission. The elected official is assessed $125 for each report filed late. The fine rises to $250, then goes up to $1,000. There appears to be some confusion about what the bill said about the fine, revealing political tension between the commission and local associations.

“The law doesn’t actually say that they’ll fine them; it says a fine will be imposed,” said Amy Henderson, Georgia Municipal Association spokeswoman. “The clerk doesn’t actually have to go to get that money.”

Executive Secretary Holly LaBerge, who heads the ethics commission, said that information from GMA is wrong, that the fine is assessed by the person or the entity filing the report. The city or county staff member is responsible for accepting the form, viewing them for accuracy, transmitting it to the commission on time, notification if the report’s late and collecting the late fee, LaBerge said.

“They get to keep the first $25 of it,” she said, adding she didn’t know where the rest of the fine goes.

Under the change regulations, the clerk or county elections superintendent must transmit reports to the state commission within 30 days of the due date of the report. All candidates and public officers have to file a personal financial disclosure report within 10 days of qualifying in an election year and by June 30 in a nonelection year.

The reform is going to eliminate a number of people who have to file in a large number of cities, Henderson said.

“Mind you, they wanted this back,” LaBerge said. “They don’t want to have to file with us. The long and short of it is, GMA pushed long and hard to have the locals file at local level.”

The association heard a lot of complaints from municipal elected officials about filing electronically with the state and being branded as not complying with ethics laws, Henderson said. Her organization is suggesting to elected officials that they enforce penalties themselves when the new law takes effect.

Candidates and elected officials who don’t raise or spend $2,500 in a year only have to file a written notice of intent not go above that amount, rather than six forms they would normally have to file, Henderson said. Many candidates for local office spend little to nothing on their campaigns. Having the information filed locally benefits voters because it’s easier to get the information.

“The people who are going to be voting on these candidates, they’re the ones that are going to benefit from having this information,” she said. “In many places, it’s much easier to walk to city hall to get this information than it is to try and get it from Atlanta.”

Jordan said she has additional concerns and hopes there will be some training, but she may be out of luck.

LaBerge said they tried training but won’t have any more because GMA and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia didn’t send the dates out.

“We had such a poor turnout, we’re not doing it again,” LaBerge said.

The law doesn’t require mandatory training.


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