The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Commission posted a seven-page list online earlier this week of local government officials who have supposedly failed to submit their campaign contribution information this year.
According to the state organization’s website, each late filer owes fines of different amounts. For example, District 1 Valdosta council member James Wright owes $75; District 2 council member Deidra White owes $2,750.
“I’ve been trying to make contact with the office for the last three weeks to find out why I owed this money,” said Wright. “It’s a very confusing and flawed process.”
Lowndes County Commission Chairman Ashley Paulk is listed as owing $2,750 for failing to submit campaign contribution records for two positions, as chairman and as a member of the Department of Corrections Board.
“I have been trying to call them for the last few months to find out if I needed to file two forms because it would be the exact same documents,” explained Paulk. “They never answered our phone calls or emails and the next thing I know, we’re getting fined for not filing.
“It’s the most dysfunctional thing I’ve ever seen,” said Paulk. “I’m not going to pay it because I didn’t do anything wrong. All they can do is keep you from running for office. That means I’m going to retire; 20 years of service and I’m just going to retire.”
Lowndes County Board of Elections Supervisor Deb Cox said local board of elections offices previously were responsible for these submissions. City clerks were also allowed to assist local officials in gathering the documents.
Now, it’s illegal for city clerks to help with submissions.
“We’ve been hearing the same thing over and over; they don’t answer emails or phone calls,” said Cox. “I don’t know if they’re swamped or if it’s because their database has quadrupled after adding all Georgia cities. It’s unusual to me that we’ve never had a problem locally in my 15 years with the board of elections and now everyone’s on the list.”
Oddly enough, the seven-page list from Monday is only two pages long today. Valdosta Mayor Joseph “Sonny” Vickers is one of the officials who is no longer on the updated list. He said he became aware of the problem on Monday and had someone help him fill out the online submissions and everything went through with a few keyboard clicks.
“I didn’t have any contributions and I wasn’t intending to solicit any contributions since I pick my signs up,” said Vickers.
District 6 council member Robert Yost owed $2,750 Monday and said he had no idea that his name was on the list. Today, his name has been removed. He never paid any of the fines or made any recent submissions.
“It’s taken them awhile to get the bugs worked out,” said Yost. “I don’t know if it’s working or not. It’s probably past time for them to have done this, but it’s going to take a little while to get used to the new system.”
Local elected officials have the option to login on the website, register for two different personal identification numbers to submit the information. They are also able to send in a paper copy of the information.
Holly LaBeree, executive director of the Campaign Finance Commission, said that because this is the first year the commission has had to handle so many applications, there have been problems with the system.
“There’s a mass confusion,” said LaBeree. “There are lots of locals that didn’t get the paperwork in on time or didn’t send it to the right place. If they call up here, we’re going to get to them as fast as possible.”
She admits there have been some problems on their end, with late fees assessed incorrectly, but that her team will erase late fees in such instances.
“We’re doing the best we can and we’re taking it one day at a time,” said LaBeree.
Failure to pay the fees will not prevent a candidate from qualifying for local office, she said. The flat fee for not filing is $75 at first; after 15 days, that cost increases to $375, after 45 total days, it maxes out at $1,375. She also said only $25 goes to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission while everything else goes to the Georgia Treasury.