Former Las Cruces Mayor Bill Mattiace’s donation of campaign funds to help pay for a funeral demonstrates the need for campaign finance and other ethics reform in city government. It’s time for action.
Former Las Cruces Mayor Bill Mattiace says donating $10,000 from his campaign account to help pay for the funeral of his sister-in-law’s husband was “the right thing to do.”
While I certainly understand his desire to help a family member, particularly in a difficult time, Mattiace was wrong to use campaign funds to help his sister-in-law.
Such donations should be illegal, even though they’re not currently, because of the slippery slope they represent.
If you can use campaign funds to pay for funerals, why not also for living expenses? Or your child’s college tuition? Or a new car? Or a trip to Vegas?
Allowing campaign funds to be spent for those purposes is practically inviting bribery. When a public official gets into financial trouble, there will be a temptation to trade an official act in exchange for a personal bailout. Sure I’ll vote for your proposal. Just contribute $2,500 to my campaign…
That’s why what Mattiace did is wrong. That’s why it should be illegal.
Money raised for a campaign should only be spent for campaign purposes, and perhaps, as long as it’s strictly regulated, on expenses directly related to city officials’ job duties.
Reform is long overdue
The fact remains that such spending of campaign funds is not illegal in Las Cruces. Thus, the blame lies with city officials (including, I suppose, Mattiace in his former capacity as mayor) for allowing such spending.
I’ve been trying to start a discussion in Las Cruces about ethics reform since 2009, when I first wrote an article about the need for revisions to the city’s elections code and other ordinances that relate to ethics. At the time, Mayor Ken Miyagishima told me he supported reform and shared with me his own ideas for improvement. Several councilors also told me reform was an important topic to discuss.
But by last year’s election season, city officials had taken no steps toward such reform.
In August, I authored a commentary complaining about the lack of action. Here’s what I wrote:
“Las Cruces should focus on reform. The city doesn’t even require that election ads include a disclosure of who is paying for them. That’s a basic campaign transparency issue required at the state and federal levels, and it’s something this website requires from candidates regardless of whether the jurisdictions in which they’re running require it.
“Ethics reform is long overdue in Las Cruces. Let’s hope the mayor, councilors, and candidates running in the November election make it a priority.”
In their own words
After I wrote that commentary, I asked the candidates about ethics reform. Here’s what those who won last year’s races said (click on the links to read their full statements):
- Mayor Miyagishima: “While I fully support election reform, it would have been very difficult for a new mayor and council to immediately set out to change election rules in the City Charter, because the charge would have been that we were making those changes to benefit ourselves. Municipal election reform is so important that it can’t be seen as a partisan issue, and any changes need to have widespread support.”
- District 1 Councilor Miguel Silva: “The City does not have strong ethics policies and enforcement in place now, and I would like to see them strengthened.”
- District 2 Councilor Gregory Z. Smith (who is new to the council): “I emphatically believe we need ethics reform, but we need to make sure that any reforms we put in place actually have the intended result. We do not want to provide loopholes for those who will seek ways around the system, nor do we want to have unintended consequences that encourage corruption or penalize honesty.”
- District 4 Councilor Nathan Small: “…I support formation of a Citizen Campaign Commission. This Commission should contain balanced political and geographical representation from across the City, and be charged with producing reform recommendations for City elections. From addressing the potential influence of special interests and opaque sources of money to the current absentee ballot request process (out of step with state processes) there is significant work for such a committee. Forming the committee after the upcoming election would give it time to gather public input and pursue reforms free from the pressures of an impending local election, and also allow significant time for formal consideration and passage of campaign reforms.”
Time for action
Miyagishima is in his second term. Whatever concern he had during his first about appearances should no longer apply. As Mattiace’s funeral donation demonstrates, the time for grand statements in support of reform without action has passed.
I believe the council and mayor can tackle reform on their own, but Small’s idea to form a commission would also be a productive step. It’s time for action.