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St. Pete City Council to consider fines for campaign finance violations

City Council approved the original ordinance in 2017 as a sharp rebuke to Citizens United.

To ensure the upcoming municipal races don’t get bogged down with runaway spending, St. Petersburg is considering establishing penalties for campaign finance violations.

The city is proposing updates to an ordinance originally approved in late 2017 that block individuals from contributing more than $5,000 per year to political action committees affiliated with municipal candidates. The ordinance also calls for additional transparency in campaign contributions.

“Because the local campaign finance regulations codified in city code … fulfill an important governmental interest, the city’s enforcement of these regulations should be structured so as to discourage violations to the full extent allowable under applicable law,” the proposed ordinance reads.

City Council will take a first vote on the update at its April 4 meeting.

If approved, the measure would come back to the Council for a second and final vote.

City Council approved the original ordinance on October 5, 2017, as a sharp rebuke to the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed wealthy individuals and corporations to funnel unlimited sums of money into political campaigns through Political Action Committees.

The ordinance could still face legal challenges as an infringement on free speech under the First Amendment.

It came during the contentious 2017 mayoral debate between Mayor Rick Kriseman and his then challenger Rick Baker. The two shattered spending records in that race. Both benefited from substantial political committee contributions including $50,000 for Baker from his then-boss, former Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards to his Seamless Florida PAC. Kriseman received $50,000 from the Tampa Bay Rays to his Sunrise PAC. Both received a number of other high-dollar contributions into their respective PACs.

State law caps civil penalties for municipal ordinance violations at $500, which is what the city is proposing for campaign finance violations.

The proposed amendment to the ordinance would include an exception for smaller contributions, which would cap that penalty at the amount of the contribution.

Offenders would receive notification of the violations and be given “a reasonable period of time” to correct it before incurring a fine. That warning would not apply to violations such as campaign mail or advertisements in which the violation could not be corrected.

The ordinance would be effective immediately if Kriseman indicates he will not veto it. If he does not provide notification that he won’t veto it, but does not do so within five business days, it would become effective then.

If approved, the updated fines for violators would be in effect for the upcoming City Council races in which four seats will be on the ballot including two that will likely be competitive. Steve Kornell and Charlie Gerdes are both leaving office due to term limits. Four candidates have already filed to run for Kornell’s south St. Pete District 5 seat.

One candidate has filed to run for Gerdes’ west St. Pete District 1 seat, but more are likely to enter that race.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman is seeking re-election to District 7 and Ed Montanari is expected to run for a second term in District 3, though he has not yet filed.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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