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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Did opponents of Tacoma renters’ rights measure violate state campaign-finance laws?

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TACOMA — A renters’ rights group in Tacoma that put a measure that would amend the city’s housing code on the November ballot has alleged that local and national housing and real estate associations violated public disclosure laws while raising over $350,000 to oppose the measure.

In a complaint filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission last week, Tacoma for All alleges the political action committee “No on Tacoma Measure 1” and two organizations behind the PAC (Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors and the National Association of Realtors) violated state law by failing to accurately and timely report at least $255,000 in campaign contributions as well as failing to register as a political committee.

Tacoma for All also alleges TPCAR failed to report staff time spent opposing Measure 1 and NAR failed to register and report itself as an incidental committee, which has different campaign-reporting requirements than other political committees.

The public disclosure complaint was still under initial review as of Monday, according to Kim Bradford, deputy director of the disclosure commission.

“The complaint is meritless,” Sean Martin, CEO of Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors, said in an email toThe News Tribune last week. “It is an attempt to distract from the flaws in Measure 1. Rather than debate the issues, the supporters of Measure 1 seek to change the subject.”

A spokesperson with the National Association of Realtors did not respond to requests for comment from The News Tribune.

Measure 1 seeks to amend the city’s rental housing code to give renters additional rights, including relocation assistance in cases of 5% or more rent increases, the creation of a tenant and landlord code of conduct and a defense against evictions from November through April, among other changes. Some local landlords and developers say those measures go too far and would make the local housing market more unstable, leading to more corporate ownership and higher rents.

In an email blast to supporters Oct. 10, the Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors described Measure 1 as “too extreme”, saying it “will exacerbate Tacoma’s lack of attainable housing opportunities.” “Vote No on Measure One” yard signs say Measure 1 “puts difficult neighbors first,” “will have costly consequences” and “risks the progress we’ve made.”

In August, Tacoma for All won a lawsuit against the City of Tacoma, Pierce County and the county auditor when a judge ruled it was “misleading and confusing” that the City Council chose to put a more moderate rental measure on the ballot as an alternative to Tacoma for All’s, despite passing that measure into law already.

Bradford said the initial review process into a Public Disclosure Commission complaint typically takes 10 days or fewer. The commission is working to finish the review of Tacoma For All’s complaint this week because of the approaching election, she said.

If there is sufficient evidence to open a case, the commission would contact those whom the complaint involves, informing them a complaint was filed against them and requesting their response. While waiting for the response, the commission would assess the complaint and try and determine if there have been violations of the law, Bradford said.

Within 90 days, the commission tries to resolve the complaint, which could result in a dismissal, a warning (if there are likely violations or the violations don’t result in further enforcement action), a fee (in addition to the respondent agreeing to the violation) or a formal investigation that would head to the appointed commission for adjudication, Bradford said.

“A majority of cases are resolved at the staff level, but some cases do end up going to the commission,” she said.

Failure to report campaign donations?

According to the Oct. 18 complaint filed by Tacoma for All’s legal counsel, an email blast sent by TPCAR to its members on Oct. 10 seems to indicate TPCAR, “No on Measure 1” and NAR might have received “sizeable” pledges prior to when they reported those contributions to the Public Disclosure Commission.

An October email campaign from TPCAR to its members said TPCAR “sprang into action” upon learning that Measure 1 qualified for the November ballot and “leveraged” its memberships in NAR and Washington Realtors, receiving $200,000 and $25,000 for the campaign, which included digital ads, a website launch and mailers to city residents.

Under the Fair Campaign Practices Act, a political committee must file a statement of organization “within two weeks after the date the committee first has the expectation of receiving contributions or making expenditures in any election campaign,” which includes campaigns against local ballot propositions.

Tacoma for All’s counsel said in the complaint TPCAR likely knew Measure 1 qualified for the ballot in June when the signature verification process was complete, and in July when the City Council voted to place the measure on the ballot.

The contributions TPCAR claimed to have received no later than Oct. 10 were not reported by No on Tacoma Measure 1 until Oct. 16, according to a report filed Oct. 17, the complaint said.

That report also showed TPCAR had leveraged an additional $79,999 in pledged contributions from Seattle property management company CEO Karl Neiders, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and TPCAR itself, all dated Oct. 16, according to the complaint.

Tacoma for All’s counsel alleges it’s not credible that those and additional pledges “were not planned and received far in advance of their reported date.”

“Based on its October 10 email, it appears that TPCAR was paying staff members for time spent campaigning in opposition to Measure 1 as early as June 2023 (when they ‘sprang into action’ to ‘create a coalition to oppose Tacoma Measure 1’ and to raise funds),” the complaint alleges.

“Because TPCAR failed to register and report as a political committee, it did not report those expenditures on July, August, September or October C-4 reports,” the complaint said.

On Sept. 28, “No on Tacoma Measure 1” also entered into a $350,000 contract with vendor Access Marketing and the combined pledges received on Oct. 16 were “just enough” to fulfill this contract, something Tacoma for All suggests means it’s likely those pledges were planned or received far in advance.

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