Although state law specifically prohibits public officials from using taxpayers’ money for political campaigning, they have been doing exactly that throughout California.
Local governments hire “consultants” to poll voters on what tax and bond measures they would find acceptable, to draft those proposals accordingly and, finally, to run so-called “information” campaigns to persuade voters to approve them.
It’s so blatant that firms seeking lucrative contracts openly boast of their successful campaigns, eliminating any doubt that they are truly political operatives.
The practice has ballooned because local prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office ignore complaints about its illegality. Indeed, local district attorneys often benefit from the higher taxes.
Finally, however, we may be seeing some effort to sanitize this very stinky phenomenon which, if left unchecked, will only become more commonplace.
Last month, the state Fair Political Practices Commission took a potentially significant action against the Bay Area Rapid Transit District for doing what it and other local governments have been doing.
$7,500 Fine on BART
The FPPC voted unanimously to impose a $7,500 fine on BART for failing to report its spending on a bond issue as a campaign contribution. It also asked the attorney general and Bay Area district attorneys to prosecute the transit district for violating the law prohibiting the use of public funds for political campaigns.
“It’s not the total (amount) of what was used; it’s the concept of misusing public funds,” FPPC chairwoman Alice Germond said at the commission’s December meeting. “We want to send a warning and not create a precedent that it’s a minor, ‘slap on the wrist’ kind of thing.”
The action stems from a proposed $3.5 billion bond issue, Measure RR, that voters in the three-county district approved two years ago by a 70 percent margin. The “information campaign” for the bond included a video, featuring Golden State Warriors player Draymond Green, that the FPPC said was acceptable, while concluding that two other videos and text messages to voters were clearly advocacy.
BART paid a public relations firm, Clifford Moss LLC, $99,000 to craft its measure before the item was placed on the ballot, and the same firm then directed the supposedly independent campaign for the bond measure.
The FPPC acted on a complaint from Jason Bezis, a Lafayette attorney. It’s similar to complaints that have been filed about other local bond and tax measures, including those in Los Angeles County, by taxpayer advocacy groups.
Agencies Not Allowed to Campaign
After the FPPC acted, a BART spokeswoman, Alicia Trost, told the Bay Area News Group that the campaign errors were “accidental.”
“We have been and will continue to be committed to following the law,” Trost told BANG. “We accept their finding.”
While state law allows agencies to publish accurate information about their proposals, they are not allowed to advocate their passage, and that’s the line that BART and other agencies have obviously and arrogantly been crossing.
If they use public money for campaigns, they will, the FPPC implies, be treated like other financiers of political campaigns and be required to file reports. If they file such reports, however, they will be admitting, in effect, that they are violating the law prohibiting such spending.
That’s where the prosecutors should come into the picture. They should do their duty, enforce the law and seek personal fines from the officials involved. And the Legislature could, and should, invalidate any local measure that’s passed when those officials ignore the law.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.