Is accepting donations from developers a conflict of interest?
In an election season with a number of voters paying close attention to who is funding candidates at a local level, the Ormond Beach City Commission incumbents have faced backlash from political action committee CANDO 2 and some members of the public over accepting campaign donations from local developers.
The City Commission Zone 4 race is no exception.
With three candidates in the running — incumbent Rob Littleton, CANDO 2-endorsed Barry du Moulin and self-funded David Romeo — this race represents each side of the spectrum regarding viewpoints surrounding the argument that the city is not being smart with its latest developments. Local developer Paul Holub's Granada Pointe development, which has been heavily criticized, is also located in Zone 4. Prior to the withdrawal of commission candidate James Holcombe, who was convicted of racketeering charges in early August, it was the race with the most opponents.
In terms of campaign finances, Littleton leads the pack with $14,626. About $6,500 of that has been donated by local developers and real estate investors.
Du Moulin has raised $2,920, with at least $1,325 that came from known CANDO 2 members. CANDO 2 founders Ken and Julie Sipes have donated $500 to each of their committee's endorsed candidates, for a total of $2,500.
“We put our money where our mouth is," Julie Sipes said.
Apart from asking their choice candidates to work toward sustainable development in town, the Sipeses said they are not seeking any position on city boards. There is no personal interest
involved, they said. They believe the developers funding the incumbents cannot say the same.
The CANDO 2 view on candidates accepting donations from developers is that it creates a conflict of interest in the future as they present projects for approval before the commission.
He said the only common characteristic about anyone who has contributed to his campaign is that they believe he deserves re-election. The conflict of interest dispute is "nothing but allegations and slander" against the integrity of the sitting commissioners.
“If I did not agree with a project that came before the commission, I would absolutely vote against it," Littleton said. "Anyone who knows me, knows that I’ve been very independent my entire life, and I’m my own man, and nobody owns me.”
Local developer and Planning Board Member Lewis Heaster has contributed $9,500 in total contributions to the incumbents and Zone 3 candidate Susan Persis. Of that sum, Littleton received $1,000.
"I’ve donated to numerous candidates over 20-plus years from local to federal races," Heaster wrote in an email. "I like to support candidates that focus on jobs, business and a strong community."
Du Moulin has stated throughout his campaign that he would refrain from accepting money from developers. He also believes the developers' contributions are a conflict of interest and should be considered a violation of ethics. The way contributions are handled is frustrating, he added.
“I’m going to do what I can with what I’ve got," du Moulin said. "If I win, I win. If I don’t, I don’t.”
Romeo has surpassed du Moulin with $3,993, though he has funded most of his campaign himself. He said he could've accepted donations from a few local developers but decided against it. He did not disclose who those developers were.
Describing himself as a candidate in the "middle," he said he is for smart, low-impact development. In his view, the incumbents have made poor planning decisions that lack vision and innovation in development in the city, and on the opposite side, CANDO 2's take would be taking a step back.
“I want to be the person that is going down the middle of the road, that’s there for the citizens, that is there with a vision, that’s there to offer our developers a new design—a new concept,” Romeo said.
Ken Sipes said the scale of the money developers have put into the City Commission races is "problematic." Julie Sipes pointed out that they were funding the incumbents before they had opponents. People have a choice now, they agreed.
“We appreciate that [the CANDO 2-endorsed opponents] stepped up," Ken Sipes said. "It’s not easy for these individuals to put themselves out there into the political arena.”