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City Council hopeful sues finance board

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Kew Gardens resident Mel Gagarin, running for the 29th City Council District, said the city Campaign Finance Board is unfairly allowing incumbents to potentially outspend challengers and he is hoping to change that with a recently filed lawsuit in state Supreme Court.

Gagarin is one of three Council candidates who filed the suit in State Supreme Court against the board last week.

After the Council voted to extend term limits, the board issued an advisory opinion that said incumbents who had been running for a higher office but now wanted to take a stab at a third term could essentially wipe their funding slates clean, no matter how much they had raised for their other campaign.

According to the opinion, the incumbents could then participate in the Campaign Finance Program and raise the amount limited by the board. For those running for City Council, that limit is $43,000 in the three years preceding the election. They may then spend $161,000 on campaigning for the general election in 2009.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, including Gagarin; Yetta Kurland, who is running for Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s (D−Manhattan) district; and Jo Anne Simon, who is running for Councilman David Yassky’s (D−Brooklyn) seat, said the board’s decision makes it more difficult for challengers, who must adhere to board spending limits and could have to run against incumbents who have already spent thousands in a different election. Dan Jacoby, a 26th Council District resident and Daily Gotham blogger, joined the three candidates in filing the suit..

“I joined the lawsuit because it seems pretty well−intentioned to get the Campaign Finance Board to live up to their promise to ensure a local playing field,” said Gagarin, who was a community representative for U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D−Forest Hills) and now works for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “They’re dealing with a situation that’s somewhat unprecedented, but they’ve skewed the playing field in favor of the incumbents”

“I can only raise $43,000, but if [Councilwoman] Melinda Katz [D−Forest Hills] didn’t want to run for comptroller anymore and wanted to stay in her race, it would be unfair because she has already spent $775,000 in her race for comptroller and then she could raise more if she decided to run for her seat again,” Gagarin added.

Katz did not return phone calls for comment, but she has said she plans to continue to campaign for comptroller and will not seek re−election for the Council.

“The board feels the best way to provide for competitive races in these districts is to offer an incentive for the incumbents to set aside the war chests they’ve raised, join the Campaign Finance Program and voluntarily limit their spending for a re−election campaign to City Council,” CFB Executive Director Amy Loprest said in an e−mailed statement.

“If these incumbents choose to opt out of the program, they face no limits on their spending. By allowing them a fresh start, the board hopes to impact their behavior going forward and allow these elections to unfold on a more level playing field,” she said.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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