Public officials running for office can vote on matters that benefit their campaign donors, according to the city’s ethics code.
City Attorney Jeff Logston said officials are not legally required to recuse themselves from votes that affect people who have contributed to their campaign.
That means Republican mayoral candidate and city council member Jim Lienhoop did not violate the city’s ethics policy when he voted Jan. 20 to support a recent tax abatement request for a company co-owned by a campaign contributor.
Lienhoop and the other five council members at the meeting unanimously passed an abatement for TechTop Realty LLC.
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The company is planning to invest $2 million to expand its warehouse in the Woodside Industrial Park.
It leases the 55,000-square foot warehouse to LHP Technologies and plans to add another 60,000 square feet of space.
The CEO of both companies is Columbus resident Ryan Hou, who donated $5,000 to Lienhoop’s campaign in November. Lienhoop is challenging Republican Mayor Kristen Brown for the Republican nomination for mayor in the May 5 primary.
Brown cited the Lienhoop donation when explaining why she is careful in what donations she accepts for her political campaign. With large donations, candidates run the risk of people thinking those donors are buying influence or favors, the mayor said.
She also mentioned it Thursday night on her personal Facebook page, writing that Lienhoop both motioned for and recommended the abatement, which she said saves TechTop $250,000 in taxes during a 10 year period.
Lienhoop said he voted on the requested abatement, which adds two jobs to a long-standing company, solely on its own merits. He led the motion and made the recommendation as a member of the Incentive Review Committee, which met just before the council meeting to discuss the requested abatement.
He said the request was just like any other abatement the council has approved, and that the company’s application contained nothing unusual or questionable.
Columbus is a small city in which candidates find supporters in a lot of different places — and people who want to donate to a campaign should be welcomed to, he said.
“I think the way this whole thing is supposed to work is through disclosure,” he said.
“The documents that are associated (with the abatement) are, I believe, open for inspection. And the campaign finance report that we file is also a public document.”
Political contributions are a form of free speech that shouldn’t be limited, Lienhoop said.
The city’s Code of Ethics was approved by the City Council in 2013. It is similar to the state’s code of ethics, but the Indiana State Ethics Commission, a five-member board that issues advisories based on state regulations, has no jurisdiction in Columbus, Indiana Inspector General Cynthia Carrasco said.
Under the city’s ethics code, officials cannot accept gifts or participate in discussions and votes on topics that may financially help or harm themselves, their employer or their family members, Logston said.
But campaign committees, which receive contributions from donors through a treasurer, are legally separate entities, Logston said.
According to the code of ethics passed by Columbus city officials in 2013, councilmen should not knowingly solicit, accept or receive gifts or favors from people who have a business relationship with the council or who are seeking to influence their vote on any matter.
But political contributions that are legally reported are excluded from that restriction.
Councilmen are directed to recuse themselves from discussions and votes on any matter that would financially benefit themselves, an immediate family member, their company or any company with which they are seeking employment.