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Jan 19, 2007

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Campaign donations not listed online - yet
Dallas: Most running for mayor back electronic filing for finance reports
12:00 AM CST on Friday, January 19, 2007

By DAVE LEVINTHAL / The Dallas Morning News
When Dallas mayoral candidates this week disclosed their campaign bankrolls, they did so using the oldest of old-fashioned methods: ink and paper.

But in interviews with the race's most financially active candidates, all but one pledged to support an electronic filing system that would enable the public to search and study campaign finance data online with incomparable ease.

Many said they're surprised to learn Dallas is Texas' largest city and the nation's second-largest city (behind Phoenix) that doesn't require or plan to require political candidates to submit campaign finance filings electronically. Other cities post the filings publicly on the Internet.

San Antonio has used such a system since 2005. The Houston City Council in December unanimously approved creating an electronic disclosure system.

In Dallas, determining which lobbyists or business executives give the most money to political candidates, or who receives the most cash from a certain ZIP code, takes hours, even days, because it requires paging through hundreds of hard-copy or scanned documents and crunching numbers.

An electronic campaign-finance database, in contrast, makes such searches possible within the time it takes to punch a few computer keys. Type "Smith," for example, and everyone with that name who's ever donated to any candidate immediately appears on-screen.

Depending on the system, candidates may file their finance information electronically through several means: e-mail, CD-ROMs or special software provided by the government.

Many candidates say they prefer electronic filing anyway, since they already keep their books using a computer spreadsheet or database program.

"In this day and age, there's no reason candidates can't file electronically, and no reason governments can't collect data electronically," said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based organization that studies campaign-finance issues.

"It's much easier for citizens to trust their government when they can get quick, easy access to this information," Mr. Ritsch said. "With it, voters can determine how money may be influencing the candidates, and they can make their decisions accordingly at the polls."

City Secretary Deborah Watkins oversees Dallas' campaign-finance records. She acknowledges Dallas' record-keeping isn't as sophisticated as it could be. Ms. Watkins said she plans to contact officials in Houston and San Antonio to learn more about how they implemented their electronic disclosure systems.

Former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Max Wells, who leads the city's 19 mayoral candidates with more than $531,000 in available campaign cash, said that if elected, he would appoint a task force to recommend how best to create an online campaign-finance database. Mr. Wells said he would want a system in place by year's end, "if not sooner."

"Right now, asking someone to analyze these reports is like asking them to clean out the garage," said Mr. Wells, a former chairman of Dallas' disbanded Ethics Task Force. "Sunshine equals accountability. There is no reason Dallas shouldn't make this available."

Former Turner Corp. chairman and chief executive officer Tom Leppert, who reported having more than $444,000 on hand through Dec. 31, also said he'd advocate electronic filing as mayor.

"I certainly wouldn't have any objection to it," Mr. Leppert said. "We want to be transparent. It's a good idea."

Other Dallas mayoral candidates who disclosed significant campaign contributions during the July 1 through Dec. 31 filing period agreed to back an electronic filing system.

They include West Dallas Chamber of Commerce president John Cappello, businessman Sam Coats, magazine editor Zac Crain, District 9 City Council member Gary Griffith, District 3 council member Ed Oakley, and lawyers Roger Herrera and Darrell Jordan.

"It's best for the public because it's a lot quicker and less labor-intensive," Mr. Jordan said of an electronic disclosure system.

Mr. Oakley agreed.

"I don't know why we haven't already done it. Besides, I wouldn't have to run down here to City Hall with a hard copy each time," he said.

"If that makes data more available to the public, then that makes perfect sense to me," Mr. Griffith said. "It's an appropriate step for us to take."

Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, who announced his bid for mayor this month, says he supports electronic campaign-finance filings in principle.

But Mr. Hill questioned the feasibility of such a system, saying he's concerned about its cost to the city and convenience for candidates who aren't computer-savvy or possess few resources.

Some city governments that mandate electronic filing allow candidates who raise small amounts of money – less than $10,000, in San Diego's case – to submit paper filings.

E-mail dlevinthal@dallasnews.com

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