Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dollars vs. Votes (preliminary)

With the preliminary results in, it's worth taking a quick look at how the mayoral candidates' expenditures translated (or didn't translate) into votes. Here's a quick table and graph:

Disclaimers: Most of the candidates undoubtedly spent more during the final days before the election, and we won't know how much until the next round of disclosure statements is filed. The vote totals aren't final yet, either. Some of the expenditure amounts may also be misleading for various reasons. For instance, Van Hooser was able to recycle hundreds of yard signs left over from her earlier campaigns.

Note that expenditures are not the same as contributions, so these numbers don't match those in the previous article.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Visualizing Campaign Fundraising

There is a wealth of information in the campaign financial disclosure statements that Ogden’s candidates filed last week. Press reports have focused on the total funds raised and spent by each candidate, as well as a few of the larger individual contributions. We rarely hear about the numerous smaller contributions. Are they significant?

This article attempts to answer this question in a visual way. For example, here is a graph that summarizes all the contributions received by all of Ogden’s mayoral candidates as of the disclosure cutoff date, September 3:

On the horizontal axis is the size of each contribution (plotted on a logarithmic scale that stretches out the lower end of the range, compared to the upper end, in order to show more detail). On the vertical axis is the cumulative total of all contributions that are less than this contribution amount. So, for example, contributions of $50 or less added up to about $3500 for all the candidates, or about 3.6% of the $97,000 total. Donations of exactly $1000 contributed $15,000 to the total, which was more than all donations of $200 or less.

The graph starts at $50, because candidates are not required to itemize contributions of $50 or less. The final jump in the graph is at $5000, the maximum amount that a person can contribute to any given candidate under the ordinance that Ogden passed in 2009. Contributions from a candidate to his or her own campaign (which are still unlimited) are not included in the graph. Multiple donations from the same person to the same candidate are treated as a single donation, but donations from one person to different candidates are not combined.

The good news here is that even the $50 contributions add up to enough to show up on the graph. Small contributors do indeed have a voice! But it’s disturbing that the six $5000 contributions add up to nearly as much as all of the contributions of $500 or less. When candidates feel beholden to a relatively small number of very large donors, ethical quandaries can easily arise. (The Ogden Ethics Project platform calls for a reduction in the maximum contribution size from $5000 to $3000.)

Of course, what you’re really wondering is how these contributions break down among the various candidates. So here, without further ado, is the breakdown:

As the press has reported, Caldwell’s fundraising has far outpaced all the others, accounting for nearly half of the total contributions received. Goddard, Ballard, Stephenson, and Van Hooser are far behind Caldwell but surprisingly close to each other, while Van Wagoner and Hansen are far behind all of these. Thompson is not included in the graph because he hasn’t received any contributions, funding his campaign entirely on his own.

The contribution size distributions also vary widely among candidates. Caldwell’s bread and butter seem to be the $500 and $1000 donors, with his three $5000 contributions adding a rich dessert. Stephenson has received more than anyone else in amounts under $100, and is nearly even with Caldwell up to the $200 threshold. Van Hooser’s fundraising looks fairly strong in the middle of the graph, but then plateaus at the high end. Goddard is barely ahead of Van Wagoner until the two $5000 contributions from his parents are included, bumping him abruptly into second place.

For some interesting context, here is a similar graph for the two finalists in the 2007 mayoral campaign:

This graph includes contributions from the entire campaign cycle, so it isn’t directly comparable to the graphs above. Note that in 2007 there were no contribution limits, and nine of Godfrey’s contributors gave more than $5000. Note also the distinct shapes of the two lines, with Van Hooser receiving more in amounts under $250, but Godfrey receiving far more in amounts above $1000. Bear in mind, however, that Van Hooser was still able to run a very competitive campaign, ultimately losing the election by a margin of only 3%.

Tonight we’ll learn whether the votes are following the dollars in this year’s primary election. We hope, at least, that the unusually large number of public events has helped some of the less-funded candidates get their messages out to voters.

And what will happen in this year’s general election? Predictions at this time would be extremely foolish, given that we need only wait a few more hours to learn who the two finalists will be. Our hope, however, is that general election fundraising will not again be excessively dominated by the very largest donors.

Monday, August 29, 2011

City Council Candidates to Participate in August 31 Forum

All eight of Ogden’s candidates for contested city council seats will participate in a public forum to be held Wednesday, August 31, beginning at 6:30 pm in the Browning Auditorium at Ogden’s historic Union Station. Everyone is invited to attend. After a half hour of informal mingling with the public, the candidates will address the assembly and answer moderated questions from 7:00 until 8:30.

The Browning Auditorium is located at the north end of Union Station, on Wall Avenue at 25th Street.

Kimbal Wheatley, a professional facilitator who lives in Ogden Valley, will moderate the forum.

The event is sponsored by the Ogden Ethics Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes better ethics in Ogden City government. At the forum, candidates will have a chance to express their views not only on ethics but also on the full range of issues that concern Ogden citizens: taxes and fees, debt reduction, downtown development, job creation, transportation, recreation, land use, public safety, and more.

The event’s organizers are compiling a list of prepared questions for the candidates, with input from a wide spectrum of community organizations and stakeholders. Audience members at the event will also have a chance to submit questions.

The four candidates for City Council At-Large Seat C are Jacob Culliton, Landon Halverson, Stephen D. Thompson, and incumbent Amy L. Wicks. The four candidates for the Municipal Ward 2 seat, representing Ogden’s north side, are Richard Hyer, Jennifer Neil, Todd R. Wallis, and C. Jon White. Incumbent Caitlin K. Gochnour, who represents Municipal Ward 4 on the southeast side of Ogden, is running for reelection unopposed. Gochnour will be present to talk with constituents but will not participate in the formal questions and answers, in order to give the other candidates more time.

Ogden’s nonpartisan primary election will be held on Tuesday, September 13. For each contested council seat, the two candidates who receive the most votes will proceed on to the general election on November 8.

To learn more about the Ogden Ethics Project, please visit

Friday, August 19, 2011

Council Proposes to Ban Retroactive Bidding Waivers

We are delighted to report that the Ogden City Council may soon enact one of the planks in the Ogden Ethics Project platform!

The council agenda for this Tuesday, August 23, includes the following item:
  • Professional Services Contracts – Timing of Waiver and Notice. Proposed Ordinance 2011-45 amending Section 4-2B-9 to revise exceptions for contract approval. (Adopt/not adopt ordinance – roll call vote)
And a look inside the agenda packet reveals that this ordinance would require any mayoral waivers of competitive bidding to be signed "on or before the date of execution of a contract and filed with the office of city council within 10 days after execution of a contract."

At present, Section 4-2B-9 of the Ogden City Code allows the mayor to waive competitive bidding for professional services, as long as he provides written justification and informs the city council. The loophole, however, is that it doesn't say when he must do these things.

On at least two occasions in recent years, the mayor has neglected to sign any waiver or inform the city council until after the contract was signed and the work completed. Both of these contracts were controversial. The first was for the 2006 gondola fiscal impacts study, paid for via a financial shell game that diverted a federal bus facilities grant through the Utah Transit Authority. The city council and the public didn't learn about the study, or how it was funded, until the following year. The second instance was for the recent field house feasibility study, which was contracted without competitive bidding even though the city council had been led to believe otherwise.

The Ogden Ethics Project applauds the city council for taking the initiative to close this loophole and thus keep itself, and the public, better informed about city contracting procedures. We hope this will be the first of many new ethics ordinances to be passed in the coming months.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

All Eight Ogden Mayoral Candidates to Participate in August 24 Forum

All eight of Ogden’s candidates for mayor will participate in a public forum to be held Wednesday, August 24, beginning at 6:30 pm in the Browning Auditorium at Ogden’s historic Union Station. Everyone is invited to attend. After a half hour of informal mingling with the public, the candidates will address the assembly and answer moderated questions from 7:00 until 8:30.

The Browning Auditorium is located at the north end of Union Station, on Wall Avenue at 25th Street.

Kimbal Wheatley, a professional facilitator who lives in Ogden Valley, will moderate the forum.

The event is sponsored by the Ogden Ethics Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes better ethics in Ogden City government. At the forum, candidates will have a chance to express their views not only on ethics but also on the full range of issues that concern Ogden citizens: taxes and fees, debt reduction, downtown development, job creation, transportation, recreation, land use, public safety, and more.

The event’s organizers are compiling a list of prepared questions for the candidates, with input from a wide spectrum of community organizations and stakeholders. Audience members at the event will also have a chance to submit questions.

The eight candidates for Mayor of Ogden are Jonny Ballard, Mike Caldwell, Jason Goddard, Neil Hansen, Brandon Stephenson, John H. Thompson, Susan "Susie" Van Hooser, and Steven Van Wagoner. Basic information about the candidates is summarized in the program for Wednesday's forum, available at

A similar forum for Ogden city council candidates will be held one week later, August 31, at the same place and time.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ogden Candidates Weigh in on Ethics

Nearly all of Ogden’s candidates for mayor and city council have expressed their views on ethics in municipal elections and government, in response to inquiries from the Ogden Ethics Project, a nonpartisan organization formed in May. Overall, the Ogden Ethics Project is encouraged by these responses and the ongoing discussions that they have generated.

As the campaign was getting underway in July, the Ogden Ethics Project sent each candidate a letter and questionnaire.

The questionnaire asked candidates whether they would agree to five specific voluntary limitations on funding their campaigns, provided that all of their opponents similarly agreed. Of the 17 candidates, 11 signed and returned this questionnaire, while three others responded to it in general terms without returning the actual document.

Nearly all of those who responded endorsed three limitations that would avoid certain loopholes in Ogden’s existing campaign finance disclosure rules:
  • Accepting contributions from political action committees only if they are in compliance with all laws and are not being used to circumvent contribution limits or disclosure requirements;
  • Not accepting contributions made indirectly through third parties;
  • Not encouraging others to make independent expenditures, bypassing their campaign treasury, on their behalf or in opposition to any opponent.
The most controversial item on the questionnaire asked candidates not to accept contributions from corporations, business entities, unions, or other organizations, with the exception of registered political action committees (which are subject to disclosure laws). As explained in a Guest Commentary that appeared in the Ogden Standard-Examiner on August 4, this request is intended to remove any appearance of impropriety in the awarding of city contracts, incentives, and permits, and to prevent business entities from being used to circumvent contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

Of the eleven candidates who signed the questionnaire, six endorsed the item that would restrict contributions from businesses and organizations. The Ogden Ethics Project values the diversity of opinion on this issue and understands that it takes time to update a community’s views about such a long-established custom.

The final item on the questionnaire asked candidates to report the name of the employer of any individual who contributes more than $250. This suggestion mirrors a similar requirement in federal campaigns, intended to give voters more information about the special interests that might be backing a candidate. Seven candidates endorsed this proposal.

Because some candidates did not respond, the Ogden Ethics Project will not treat the questionnaires as firm commitments from the candidates who returned them. Some candidates have said they will voluntarily respect the limitations even if their opponents do not similarly agree, and that is their choice. Most importantly, the questionnaire has accomplished the goal of raising awareness of campaign ethics and generating ongoing discussions.

Along with the questionnaire, the Ogden Ethics Project invited each candidate to submit a position statement on ethics in Ogden City Government. Nine candidates took us up on this invitation, and their statements are now posted at Among the responses there were relatively few that addressed specific elements of the Ogden Ethics Project platform pertaining to open government, conflicts of interest, and fairness in city contracting, communications, and personnel matters. This is probably because candidates are unfamiliar with existing ethics laws pertaining to municipal government, and are therefore unsure of how those laws might need modification.

Now that the candidates have weighed in, we hope the public will join this discussion. Please do so by leaving a comment!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eleven years of Ogden City Council minutes now online

In the interest of promoting open government and as a service to the public, the Ogden Ethics Project is now hosting an archive of Ogden City Council minutes on its web site. The archive can be found at

The archive dates from January 2000 through early 2011, and is organized chronologically. It includes minutes of all public city council meetings including work sessions, study sessions, and meetings where the council was acting as the Redevelopment Agency Board or Municipal Building Authority. Only closed executive sessions are omitted.

Although the Ogden Ethics Project web site does not have custom search capability, the archive has been indexed by Google and will presumably be indexed by other major search engines in the near future. Thus, the public can now look up city council actions and discussions on any topic of interest over the last eleven years.

Minutes of selected city council meetings since 2008 can also be found on the Ogden City web site. However, the collection posted there is incomplete and its content is not accessible to search engines.

The Ogden Ethics Project would like to thank the Ogden City Recorder’s office for providing the electronic files that make up the newly posted archive.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Candidates asked to accept voluntary campaign finance limitations

This new press release describes our latest initiative...


The Ogden Ethics Project, a nonpartisan organization formed in May, is asking all Ogden City municipal election candidates to adopt a set of voluntary campaign contribution limitations.

The limitations will close loopholes in Ogden’s existing campaign finance disclosure law, ensure that voters know the sources of candidates’ funds, and encourage all candidates to represent a broad spectrum of citizens rather than just a few special interests. By city ordinance, campaign contributions are already limited to $5000 for mayoral candidates and $1500 for city council candidates.

In brief, the voluntary limitations would:

  • Prohibit campaign contributions from corporations, business entities, and unions;
  • Allow contributions from registered political action committees, but only if they are not being used to circumvent contribution limits or disclosure requirements;
  • Prohibit contributions that are made indirectly, through third parties;
  • Prohibit any coordination between a candidate’s campaign and anyone making independent political expenditures that bypass the campaign treasury;
  • Require individuals contributing $250 or more to report their employers’ names.

Restrictions such as these are already mandated in many states and at the federal level. The Ogden Ethics Project is asking candidates to voluntarily accept these limitations only if their opponents also agree to do so.

In past elections, contributions from business interests have dominated some of Ogden’s campaigns, and several candidates have accepted contributions from organizations that were used to avoid contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

The checklist of voluntary campaign contribution restrictions is being mailed today to all known candidates for mayor and city council, and will be mailed to newly declared candidates soon after they register with the city. The checklist can also be downloaded from

After all candidates have had an opportunity to respond, a summary of their responses will be posted at

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Conflict of interest laws in Utah, Nevada, and the Supreme Court

One of today’s top news stories is the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Nevada’s conflict of interest law in the face of a First Amendment challenge. Here, for example, is the excellent write-up in the New York Times:
Even while the federal courts are allowing corporations to shelter their political contributions under the First Amendment, it’s good to know that elected officials can’t similarly shelter their conflicts of interest.

The general principle here is simple enough: An elected representative’s vote on a particular piece of legislation is not protected speech, because casting such a vote is a function of the representative’s office, rather than a personal right.

The particulars of the Nevada case are also interesting. The offending official was a city council member in Sparks, a city just slightly bigger than Ogden. His offense was to vote to approve a casino project that his campaign manager was closely involved with. (Whether that association was close enough to create a conflict of interest is a tricky question that the Supreme Court didn’t try to answer.)

Could a similar conflict of interest arise in Ogden? Obviously the proposed development wouldn’t be a casino, but our mayor and city council exert tremendous control over local real estate developments. It’s easy to imagine that some of these officials, or their family members or close associates, might have a financial interest in a project seeking city approval. But how would we know? Utah’s disclosure requirements for local officials are extremely weak. Also, whereas Nevada has a state Commission on Ethics that investigates and punishes ethics violations, Utah law trusts the mayor to oversee all such investigations within a city—even when it’s the mayor who commits the violation!

The Ogden Ethics Project platform would address these shortcomings in the following ways:
  • Require elected officials and appropriate employees to disclose all ownership of, or financial interest in, real property in Weber County, as well as any financial interest in companies doing business in Weber County.
  • Establish a process whereby the city council can investigate allegations of conflict of interest involving the mayor.
  • Post all conflict of interest disclosure statements on the city’s web site.
Beyond these basic measures, we hope that someday the Utah Legislature will create a state ethics commission, raising Utah’s ethical standards at least to the level of Nevada’s.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Gondola records lawsuit shows policy reforms needed

The Ogden Sierra Club recently announced the final settlement of its four-year legal battle with the city over access to a variety of records related to the gondola proposal. I (Dan Schroeder) was the Club’s lead volunteer in this lawsuit, and this dispute was one of many incidents that motivated the formation of the Ogden Ethics Project.

The Ogden Ethics Project is neutral on the gondola idea but we are strong advocates of open government. In this particular incident, the Ogden City Attorney’s office demonstrated a troubling obsession with secrecy, attempting to stretch Utah’s open records law to exempt far too many public records from disclosure. This obsession even extended to several records that contained no significant information at all. Still more troubling was the decision of the volunteer Records Review Board to uphold the city attorney’s classification of every single record—more than 40 in total.

Two of the planks in the Ogden Ethics Project platform would help resolve these kinds of disputes far more quickly, with far less expense:
  • Broaden the representation on the city’s Records Review Board to include citizen and media advocates—not just government insiders.
  • Allow denied GRAMA requests to be appealed to the State Records Committee.
If either of these reforms had been in place four years ago, it’s unlikely that this case ever would have gone to court.

Further reforms may also be possible. Utah may create a training program for government records officers, and Ogden could then require its staff and/or Records Review Board members to go through such a program. The city could also adopt policies to encourage its attorneys, when reviewing public records requests, to interpret exemptions narrowly and to represent the interests of the city as a whole rather than just those of one particular branch of government.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Can corporate campaign contributions be banned?

One of the planks in the Ogden Ethics Project platform is to ban direct campaign contributions to candidates from corporations (including other business entities and unions). Utahns for Ethical Government advocates a similar restriction for state legislative candidates. But is such a restriction constitutional?

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on independent political expenditures by corporate entities, ruling in the Citizens United case that such a ban violates the First Amendment protection of free speech. At the same time, however, the Court explicitly recognized earlier precedent upholding the existing ban on direct corporate contributions to federal candidates.

Yesterday, however, a federal district judge issued a ruling that extended the Citizens United conclusion to direct corporate contributions. If such a ruling is upheld at higher levels, it could spell trouble for all attempts to ban these contributions.

There are two problems with allowing corporations, other business entities, and unions to contribute to political candidates:
  1. These entities don’t contribute out of mere generosity or public spirit. As organizations they expect something tangible in return for their contributions, and that makes their contributions hard to distinguish from bribes.
  2. Contributors can use business entities to avoid disclosing their names or to evade contribution limits, either contributing through entities that they already control or setting up sham entities that merely launder contributions for this purpose.
These problems have already occurred in Ogden, and they are sure to recur if Ogden doesn’t put tighter restrictions in place.

As for yesterday’s court decision, it fortunately won’t have any effect over the short term. If this or a similar ruling is eventually upheld by the Supreme Court, it will overturn a century of precedent on campaign finance reform in the United States. That seems unlikely but if it does happen, we’ll let national-level organizations take the lead in sorting out the new law and devising strategies to deal with it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

News outlets announce our launch

In response to yesterday’s press release, we’ve gotten some great publicity from the news media.

The Salt Lake Tribune was the first to post a story, with a good explanation of our mission and goals:

The Standard-Examiner was close behind, posting its story late last night:
Although our primary mission is more to promote better policies than to serve as a mere “watchdog”, this is also a good article. The reporter even contacted the five announced mayoral candidates, and four of them made statements strongly supporting our mission! The fifth was apparently caught off-guard because he hadn’t yet received our press release, and that’s partly my fault.

Not to be left out, Ogden’s ever-vigilant political blog, Weber County Forum, has posted a brief note picking up on the Tribune story:

And last but not least, word is quickly spreading through our Facebook page:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

We're up and running!

Here's today's press release announcing the Ogden Ethics Project:


A group of Ogden citizens has formed a new organization, the Ogden Ethics Project, to promote better ethics in city government.

The group intends to highlight ethics issues during the upcoming municipal election campaign, then push for adoption of better ethics policies. Although the Ogden Ethics Project intends to interact with candidates and educate the public about candidates’ views on ethical matters, it will make no endorsements.

The organizers of the Ogden Ethics Project have watched Ogden government closely in recent years, noting many instances of ethical lapses. The group’s web site,, points to examples that include secret business deals, misuse of grant funds, taxpayer-funded lobbying efforts, “double-dipping” by high-level employees, and inappropriate political fundraising.

To fight these kinds of abuses, the Ogden Ethics Project has proposed a platform of 24 specific policy initiatives. These range from increased disclosure on the city’s web site to tighter restrictions on conflicts of interest, competitive bidding, and campaign contributions. While some of these policies can be implemented administratively, others will require the city council to pass new legislation.

Much of the group’s inspiration has come from Utahns for Ethical Government, a state-wide organization that seeks to pass ethics legislation through the ballot initiative process. However, the Ogden Ethics Project is not affiliated with UEG and recognizes that different strategies will be needed to promote ethics at the local level.

The Ogden Ethics Project is coordinated by Dan Schroeder, an activist and blogger who has been involved in city government for 17 years. The Board of Advisors includes two former city council members and four other Ogden citizens with diverse professional backgrounds, all sharing a passion for better government in Ogden City.

All of these officers are serving as volunteers, and the group is not accepting financial contributions. However, the Ogden Ethics Project welcomes additional volunteer help and ideas. Those interested should visit

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Salt Lake Tribune: Utah's Big Political Donors

Today's Salt Lake Tribune has a detailed story naming Utah's biggest political donors and probing the reasons why they donate. Although the first part of the article focuses on individual donors, most of whom don't seem to benefit personally from their contributions, it later discusses the biggest donors among business interests, which give far more, and the benefits they expect to receive in return. Be sure to read the quotes at the end of the article from UEG's Kim Burningham and BYU professor Quin Monson.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Welcome to the official blog of the Ogden Ethics Project.

This is where we'll post news of ethics issues in Ogden City government, the status of our policy proposals, and new information about candidates running for office in Ogden. We also welcome your comments.

If you haven't already, be sure to visit the main Ogden Ethics Project web site.

Thanks for participating!