"I just believe in fairness, and fair is fair. It is exceedingly unfair to change the rules for an election during the election."

That was City Commissioner Randy Leonard during a January 9 city council meeting, when the council was discussing a special election to replace outgoing Commissioner Erik Sten. At issue? Whether to craft special public financing rules to go along with the special election.

Fast forward to this week, when Leonard and Mayor Tom Potter want to, well, change the rules for an election, during the election.

Last Wednesday, March 5, the council approved an ordinance that formally directs Auditor Gary Blackmer to treat the special election the same as a regular election, for the purposes of public financing. That's essentially what the auditor has already been doing in the absence of special rules: Jim Middaugh qualified for public funds in the race by meeting the same requirements and deadlines as candidates for a second, regular open seat.

At issue is what happens if Middaugh makes it through the May 20 primary. Should he get $200,000 for a runoff—like candidates in a regular election do—even though the runoff for that seat is less than two months later?

"The council passed this ordinance last week; it grants [Voter Owned Elections or VOE] candidates in a greatly compressed special election the same level of funding VOE candidates receive in a regular election," Potter wrote to his colleagues, requesting a reconsideration of last week's vote. "I believe the community's support of VOE rests on its continued perception of the system's fairness and fiscal responsibility."

Leonard sent a note to Blackmer on Saturday, March 8: "It would be virtually impossible for a nonparticipating candidate to raise that amount of money in that compressed time period," he wrote. "If that is the effect of what we adopted last week, I am feeling somewhat misled. I certainly would have raised concerns with the striking unfairness of the time table I have laid out here if I had understood what the implications were of the changes we were making."

Is it unfair that Middaugh may get $200,000 soon after the May 20 primary, and his main opponent, Nick Fish, would have to hit the phones hard to catch up, should they both make it through the primary? Maybe. Very possibly, even.

But the issue was raised on January 9, before anyone filed to run for the seat. The council had a chance to make it clear what the public financing rules were before anyone decided whether or not to pursue the funding. Instead—and largely on Leonard's strong words—the council declined to get involved.

Readdressing it now, especially at the urging of a council member who's endorsed the privately funded frontrunner (Leonard is in Fish's corner), is just as unfair. Or, as Leonard said back then: "It's bad public policy to do anything that even remotely looks like we are somehow participating in an election as a council, politically. [It] calls into question the fairness of the election."