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Rod Watson: Want Water Authority reform? Push for public campaign funding

When it comes to government and politics, one word says it all: money. Whoever supplies it controls everything.

It is such a fundamental concept that it is mind-boggling that more voters haven’t demanded public financing of elections.

That prospect comes to mind again while watching Erie County legislators wring their hands and pretend there’s nothing they can do to prevent the Erie County Water Authority from soaking residents again. This time it’s doing it by giving the authority’s experience-challenged Republican executive director a $400,000 golden parachute if he’s replaced when Democrats soon take over, as has previously happened at the patronage pit.

In other words, Republicans are using patronage to fight patronage. And if you drink water, you’re paying for it.

Meanwhile, county legislators – who confirm the three Water Authority commissioners, and thus indirectly decide on the executive director tapped by those commissioners – claim they are powerless to clean up a process controlled by the Republican and Democratic party bosses.

And why are legislators impotent when it comes to changing the system? Because they depend on the same county bosses for resources come re-election time.

But what if they weren’t? What if they got their funding from small donors in a public financing system that made them independent not only of corporate and union special interests, but of party bosses, too?

"Well, that would certainly make sense, wouldn’t it," mused Legislator Thomas Loughran, perhaps the most reform-minded of the bunch, though that particular reform is not his focus right now.

But it was the focus in Montgomery County, Md., which implemented public funding of county races in 2014, with the system taking effect with this year’s elections. Howard County, Md., has followed suit, and Prince George’s County now is considering a public funding bill.

How did it happen in Montgomery County? How did they get incumbents to change the very system that had put them in office?

"The short answer is public pressure and a show of public support for the proposal," said Phil Andrews, the former Montgomery County Council member who spearheaded the effort.

Andrews, who was once Common Cause Maryland’s executive director and who now works in the state attorney general’s office, said about 60 percent of Montgomery County candidates are opting for public funding, noting that a lot of candidates don’t really like having to raise money from big groups and wealthy donors. Public funding gives them a viable alternative.

Candidates there can raise no more than $150 from any individual, and get the biggest match – 6 to 1 for county executive candidates, 4 to 1 for County Council candidates – for the first $50, with the public match dropping by $1 for each succeeding $50 from the same donor. That encourages candidates to reach out to more donors, Andrews said.

They must raise a certain number of small-dollar contributions to prove viability, and participants in the system not only must forgo corporate and union contributions, but money and in-kind contributions from the political parties, as well.

"Political parties cannot contribute anything," Andrews said.

In short, candidates answer only to voters.

Imagine if such a campaign funding system were in place in Erie County. Water users wouldn’t be paying for golden parachutes. The Water Authority wouldn’t be panned as a patronage haven as the two parties take turns filling positions, with a Democratic Party donor the latest shoo-in for a board seat. And feckless county legislators, freed from the dictates of party bosses, wouldn’t have to pretend there’s nothing they can do.

But first, voters have to get fed up enough to demand change. In Montgomery County, they were. So why aren’t they in Erie County?

It must be something in the water.

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