A provision in Montgomery County’s new public campaign financing system has caused several at-large County Council candidates to be ruled ineligible to receive matching county funds based on the small-dollar contributions they’ve received.
It’s known colloquially by state Board of Elections and county officials overseeing the system as the “one bite at the apple rule” and means that candidates only get one opportunity to submit enough certified contributions to meet the legal thresholds for receiving public matching funds.
Because of the provision, at-large council candidates Paul Geller, Loretta Garcia, Michele Riley, Tim Willard and Shruti Bhatnagar have been found ineligible to receive matching funds, according to David Crow, a county finance employee who oversees the public election financing fund. The five candidates have been removed from the most recent monthly update posted on the county website that shows which candidates have and are still working to be certified to receive public funds.
Geller and Bhatnagar, both Democrats, are likely the most well-known of the group. Geller is the former president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, while Bhatnagar is the former president of the nonprofit Takoma Foundation and an at-large member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation. Garcia is a Bethesda attorney and Riley is an accountant from Silver Spring; both are Democrats. Willard is retired archivist and a Green Party candidate who lives in Kensington.
They are among the 38 candidates who filed to run for the four at-large council seats this year.
At-large council candidates who have been ruled eligible to receive matching funds as of Feb. 28 include council President Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Public Schools teacher Chris Wilhelm, Potomac attorney Bill Conway, Wheaton community activist Hoan Dang, nonprofit director Evan Glass, former Takoma Park City Council member Seth Grimes, former Obama White House aide Will Jawando, management consultant Mohammad Siddique and former county recreation director Gabe Albornoz.
Candidates who enroll in the public campaign finance system agree to only accept contributions of $150 or less from individuals. Contributions from county residents are later matched with multiples of county funds, as long as the candidate reaches required minimum thresholds for the number and dollar amount of qualifying contributions.
This is the first county election cycle in which candidates are using the system. More than 30 county executive and council candidates have filed paperwork notifying the state board that they plan to use public financing. As of the end of February, two candidates for county executive—Marc Elrich and George Leventhal—and 13 council candidates have been certified to receive matching funds. The county budgeted $11 million for public financing and the latest county report shows candidates have withdrawn about $1.84 million from the fund.
At-large council candidates must receive at least 250 qualifying contributions totaling at least $20,000 from county residents to qualify for matching public funds.
Jared DeMarinis, director of the state board’s Campaign Finance Division, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat this month that his department reviews whether a candidate’s submissions prove the candidate has met the threshold for receiving matching public funds. If errors in the paperwork are discovered, candidates have up to 10 days to correct them, but can’t solicit any additional contributions to help them qualify, DeMarinis said.
An information sheet about the program on the county’s website notes the board’s decision “whether to certify a candidate is final.”
For this reason, many candidates who qualified to receive matching contributions submitted lists of donations well over the numbers required in case the state board officials found problems with any donations.
Candidates who are ruled ineligible for public financing must switch to traditional campaign financing, which enables candidates to receive individual contributions up to $6,000, according to Crow.
In an email statement to Bethesda Beat on Thursday, Bhatnagar denied she has been ruled ineligible to participate in the public financing system.
“We have received no formal notice from the Maryland State Board of Elections disqualifying me from public finance,” Bhatnagar wrote. “It appears that there may be some dispute as to how certain contributions are being categorized by the Board of Elections.”
She said her attorney is working with the state board to resolve the matter. “My campaign worked diligently to insure that we fully complied with all of the requirements of the Montgomery County Public Financing Law,” she wrote. “This issue is not only important for our campaign but impacts the very spirit of public financing.”
In a Jan. 30 filing, she claimed to have met the $20,000 threshold needed to qualify by reporting $20,086 in qualifying contributions. She requested in return $69,500 in public campaign funds.
Bhatnagar told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that her submissions included two in-kind contributions of $150 each that she described as food provided for a campaign event. She said the board ruled the two contributions did not qualify for matching funds and said she was unaware that in-kind contributions could not be counted toward the qualifying thresholds.
The county law notes that matching public campaign funds can’t be distributed to a candidate for “an in-kind contribution of property, goods, or services.”
Geller, Garcia, Riley and Willard all reported few, if any, contributions during the past year in their campaign finance reports filed with the state board in January, suggesting they didn’t raise enough to meet the qualifying thresholds. Geller and Garcia did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Riley said she misunderstood the system and submitted a financial report listing two contributions in November when requesting certification for public funds. After she was informed of the error, she asked if she could resubmit the form at a later date, but was told by the board she’d have to get approval from the County Council.
She said Wednesday she remains ineligible to receive public funds. She shared with Bethesda Beat emails from DeMarinis that were sent to candidates after she was ruled ineligible, warning others not to make a similar mistake.
In one sent Jan. 5, DeMarinis wrote, “Remember, you may seek certification only once.”
Riley said she’s trying to get the ruling reversed and believes the “one bite” provision doesn’t represent the intent of the public campaign financing system—to encourage and aid candidates without access to large sums of money to run for public office.
“I know it’s their first time implementing the system … but the documentation is terrible,” Riley said. While contesting the ineligibility ruling, she said she has continued to raise funds under the public financing system rules and is approaching 60 percent of the thresholds needed to qualify.
DeMarinis said he believes the county put the provision into the public campaign finance program to prevent candidates from constantly submitting paperwork to request matching funds.
Council member Nancy Navarro, who chairs the council’s Government Operations Committee, which reviewed the program extensively, noted candidates are given that 10-day grace period to make technical corrections to reported contributions, even though they aren’t allowed to submit additional donations during that time.
“I think the idea is once you file, you had to have at least met the qualifying thresholds,” Navarro said. “It’s not an easy program, you have to check things very carefully.”
Navarro is using public campaign financing for her re-election campaign this year and has already qualified for matching funds by meeting the thresholds required for district council members. To be certain she would qualify, she raised more than required by the threshold limits before requesting matching funds.
“I think that after the election the [Government Operations] committee will have a debriefing of how it went and determine the areas that need improvement,” Navarro said. “I would want the program to be a little more user-friendly.”