A June 8 Metro article incorrectly said that the D.C. Council may not apply laws retroactively. The council may apply laws retroactively but may not impose penalties retroactively. (Published 6/9/2005)

Four mayoral contenders who together have raised more than $800,000 through unregulated exploratory committees will be required to identify their donors and reveal how they spend the money under emergency legislation approved yesterday by the D.C. Council.

The measure, which takes effect upon its signing by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), marks the first time District officials have attempted to impose reporting requirements on the often secretive committees, which have been used for years by political contenders to "test the waters" before formally declaring their candidacies for public office.

This year, with Williams considering retirement at the end of his second term, a number of potential challengers have used the committees to raise unprecedented sums of cash, ringing alarm bells among advocates of open government.

Yesterday's action "takes away the big money and the secrecy that's been creeping into our politics," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), an early proponent of the legislation.

The measure passed on a voice vote. Gregory McCarthy, Williams's chief liaison to the council, said the mayor will sign the bill and provide any needed funding.

Under the measure, potential candidates will be required to report their exploratory activities twice a year, beginning July 31.

The measure limits the size of exploratory contributions to $2,000 and requires that contributions received after March 1 be counted against future campaign donations. That means a donor who gave $2,000 to a potential candidate's exploratory committee would be barred from making donations once that person became an official candidate.

The measure also places limits on the total amount exploratory committees raise and spend, on the theory that such committees should limit their activities to paying for polls, travel, phone calls and other activities narrowly focused on determining a candidate's political viability. Mayoral contenders could raise $200,000, under the measure; potential council candidates would be permitted to raise even less.

That cap will have little practical impact on the current crop of explorers. The council is prohibited from applying laws retroactively, according to its general counsel, Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, and one exploratory committee has raised and spent more than $310,000. That committee, formed by council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), closed up shop last week when Fenty formally declared himself a candidate for mayor.

Of the three potential candidates with exploratory committees, council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and former D.C. Democratic Party chairman A. Scott Bolden say they have raised about $200,000 apiece. Lobbyist Michael A. Brown says he has raised about $100,000.

Yesterday, Orange, the author of the exploratory legislation, called on Fenty to return the excess cash. "The honorable thing to do is to give the money back," Orange said.

But Fenty said he has no intention of reopening his exploratory accounts. Asked why he voted for the bill, Fenty said, "There were some good points raised during this whole debate."

Fenty has little reason to worry about violating the measure's dictates. The emergency bill makes no provision for penalties, and Orange acknowledged that exploring candidates would have to use "the honor system" when filing their first reports.

The legislation, a version of which was first introduced by Mendelson months ago, became bogged down in the politics of the 2006 campaign. Four of the 13 council members are either running for mayor or thinking about it, and several others are up for reelection.

Feuding between Mendelson and Orange, who originally opposed the legislation, has been fierce. Less than a week ago, Orange withdrew a much more complicated measure and canceled a vote on the issue in his Government Operations Committee.

A bill without penalties for violations was, "in this climate, the best compromise we could get," Orange said.

But Mendelson argued that the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance will look foolish if it fails to exercise its authority to police contribution limits.

"At some point, there will be a permanent bill," Mendelson said, "and I hope it will fix these problems."

Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. acknowledges the bill has no penalties.