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Open and transparent?
Commissioners failure to disclose highlights diminishing transparency
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Newton County Commissioner J.C. Henderson failed to file campaign finance disclosure reports for nearly three years, incurring more than $400 in fines, but a recent amendment to campaign finance legislation means he may never have to file again.

Elected officials are required to submit at least two, and up to six, campaign contribution disclosure reports a year, depending on whether they are standing for election. While this year and in the past, these reports were filed to the county, between 2011 and 2013 they were filed with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

According to public records Henderson owes the state $450 for late filing and failure to file on four occasions. However, that number may be higher, as the records also indicate that between 2011 and 2013 Henderson filed just one report. A source at the commission said the system “isn’t perfect” and an audit is only triggered if the commission receives a complaint.
When reached for comment, Henderson said he was unaware that he had failed to file during the period in question.

“Nobody ever called and told me anything,” he said. “Most of the time the county calls and tells us [to file].”

“All the money we received we disclosed,” he added. “I just didn’t know.”

The local county elections commission does send out reminders to local officials, a courtesy the state appears not to extend. Public records did not indicate any other commissioners had failed to file.

Henderson has faithfully filed his campaign contribution disclosure reports since they were transferred back to the county in 2014, but several sections remain unclear. Henderson estimates he spent about $3,000 in his last campaign, which saw him successfully reelected earlier this month.

Spending less is difficult, even in small races, but an incumbent running for a local municipal, county or school board seat could spend between $1,000 and $2,000, estimated Board of Elections Director Hugh Steele.

According to a new provision in the Georgia Law of Campaign Finance Disclosure added in 2013, candidates who raise or spend less than $2,500 are exempt from filing campaign contribution disclosure reports.

While the new provision is unlikely to have an impact on larger races, in small counties such as Newton it could diminish transparency in local elections.

“Any erosions of disclosure laws are unfortunate and a disservice to the people of Georgia,” Jim Zachary, director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, wrote in an e-mail. “It is also unfortunate that we even need laws to require elected officials and candidates for public office to be open and transparent.”

“Ironically, candidates love to pledge and promise transparency when they are stumping for votes, but hide behind bad disclosure laws when the public or the media wants to see how campaigns are financed,” he added.

Henderson was at the center of another financial kerfuffle earlier this year after it came to light that Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis had approved a zero interest person loan from the county to Henderson to pay for his son’s college tuition. Henderson quickly repaid the loan, but his fellow commissioners voted to strip him of his powers before striking that vote from the minutes at the next meeting.

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