The Gaithersburg Board of Supervisors of Elections tonight voted 4-1 to limit the amount candidates can donate to their own campaigns, flying in the face of advice from the city attorney and a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
At the previous BOSE meeting, the four members voted unanimously to interpret the city code such that candidates would be limited to contribution limits of $500. Anything above that must be reported as a loan.
The BOSE also agreed to review the decision after the election.
Lynn Board, the city attorney, was at the meeting at , which left onlookers "flabbergasted."
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said a limit for donations for a candidate raises constitutional questions," Board said before the ruling.
But BOSE members saw the wording in the code as ambiguous, and interpreted it to include candidates in the limitations.
"I don't see how we could do something different than what the code says," said Timothy E. Clark, one of the board members.
Board pointed out that candidates have donated more than $500 to their own campaigns in the past.
"Just because we were wrong before doesn't mean we're right now," Clark said. "I think the rationale of the Supreme Court has to do with the fact that they were talking about running for federal office and the President of the United States."
"If someone comes in here and tries to spend $100,000, I think that's a very good reason for us to have a limitation," he added.
The current code was adopted in 2009 after an ad hoc committee was tasked with reviewing the ordinance.
One of the members of that committee was Cory Siansky.
Siansky sent a letter to Board, which was distributed to the BOSE members, outlining the precedent set by the Supreme Court in the post-Watergate case Buckley v. Valeo.
That case set limits on campaign contributions, but also said candidates could donate an unlimited amount of money to their election coffers.
"This issue was specifically discussed by the ad hoc committee," Siansky said. "And it was not meant to apply to candidates."
He added that what the BOSE ruled would leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits by the candidates, if they chose to go that route.
Before the meeting tonight, two candidates found they needed to submit amended campaign finance reports because they had donated more than $500 to their own campaigns.
Councilwoman Cathy Drzyzgula gave about $25 back to herself, and her amended report was approved.
Challenger Paula Ross listed donations from herself and her husband separately on her amended report, and it was approved.
After the meeting, Ross and Drzyzgula said they were surprised by the BOSE's ruling.
"I think the precedent Corey laid out is pretty clear for me," Ross said. "But I have to abide by what they decided."
She added that she would not challenge the ruling.
Drzyzgula said she was "flabbergasted, again," after the BOSE upheld their previous ruling.
"It makes no sense," she said, adding that it was too early to know if anyone would challenge the ruling.
Appeals of BOSE rulings go to court, and not the City's Board of Appeals.
Barbara Fahey was the lone dissenting vote.