Dozens of council candidates apply for public financing; five already disqualified

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By Glynis Kazanjian

For MarylandReporter.com

In the race for the Montgomery County Council at-large more than two-thirds of the candidates have applied to participate in the public financing program, but less than half have gained approval as the submission deadline looms Tuesday.

Thirty-eight candidates are running to fill four seats, and 26 candidates — 25 Democrats and one Green Party candidate — have applied for public financing. The final application for submissions to qualify for matching funds is tomorrow at midnight.

Twelve candidates so far have been approved, five candidates have been disqualified and eight candidates are still seeking approval but will need to demonstrate their grassroots fundraising qualifies them by the deadline.

Those who file a Notice of Intent to seek public financing may not accept any contributions greater than $150 or from a political action committee, corporation, labor organization or state or local central committee, or loans except from themselves or their spouse which are capped at $6,000.

The 12 approved candidates are At-Large County Councilmember Hans Riemer, Gabe Albornoz, Brandy Brooks, Bill Conway, Hoan Dang, Evan Glass, Danielle Meitiv, Seth Grimes, Will Jawando, Jill Ortman-Fouse, Mohammad Siddique and Chris Wilhelm.

The five candidates disqualified from participating in the program after failing to meet eligibility requirements are Democrats Shruti Bhatnagar, Loretta Garcia, Paul Geller, Michele Riley and Green Party candidate Tim Willard. Those candidates are no longer restricted to public financing guidelines, though some have voluntarily continued to follow them.

In order to qualify for public financing in the At-Large County Council race, candidates must collect 250 qualifying contributions totaling at least $20,000. Contributions may only come from in-county residents, are capped at $150 over a four-year election cycle and must be confirmed by the contributor. Qualified candidates are eligible to receive up to $250,000 calculated using a formula based on their fundraising.

One chance to qualify, no appeal

Under the new campaign finance law, candidates are given only one opportunity to qualify. That means if the state elections board — which administers the local law — determines that certain contributions do not qualify, candidates may not collect new qualified contributions to count towards the application. The board will only look at the original application and determine if candidates have enough existing qualified contributions to replace them. Additionally, if errors are made during the application process itself, applicants may not reapply.

Two candidates, Riley and Willard, said they were disqualified because of filing errors. Bhatnagar said she was disqualified because she counted in-kind contributions towards the total aggregate amount of qualified contributions. While in-kind contributions do not get matching campaign funds, Bhatnagar argues they are allowed to be counted towards the aggregate contribution levels.

“They failed to meet the minimum requirements, either the number of contributors or the dollar amount necessary,” Jared DeMarinis of the State Board of Elections said of the disqualified candidates. “They are no longer eligible to participate.”

Of the nine candidates in County Council District races seeking to use public financing, five are approved. This includes four Democrats, District 1 candidates Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez and Reggie Oldak, District 3 incumbent Sidney Katz, and District 4 incumbent Nancy Navarro; and Republican District 2 candidate Ed Amatetti.

In district Council races, candidates must collect 125 qualifying contributions totaling $10,000 to qualify to receive $125,000 in county matching funds.

Objections to “one-bite” application

Many of the candidates are calling for the “one-bite” application rule to be removed.

Last July, DeMarinis wrote to candidates urging them to hold off on applying for the program until a state law could be altered to at least allow for errors on the reports to be remedied during the application process rather than being immediately disqualified.

According to a Jan. 31, 2018 FAQ clarification, disqualified contributions may be removed and existing qualified contributions may be added after the original application is received, but “Under no circumstances may an applicant candidate solicit new qualifying contributions after the application has been filed.”

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