Just as ballots were arriving in the mail in mid-October, 15,000 Olympia households received a separate mailer from their city government. The slickly produced piece featured a “Vote NO Initiative 976” large banner headline.
The mailer stated that if Initiative 976 (the $30 car tab fee initiative) passed, the city would lose the $1.5 million dollars in revenue it receives from the city’s $40 car tabs fees. It was explained that this $1.5 is “nearly half the city’s street reconstruction and repair budget” which the mailer says is “typically $3.750,000.”
As soon as the mailer hit, people throughout Olympia and the state were shocked that the city used public funds for an obvious act of campaigning. It strongly appeared that the City of Olympia had broken state law with this mailer.
RCW 42.17A.555 clearly states, “No elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government said, “This mailer is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, a blatant violation” of state law. Nixon continued, “The PDC should throw the book at them and their attorney should be fired.”
Immediately three formal complaints were filed with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) over the city using public funds for this obvious act of campaigning.
The city admitted that $7,423 of taxpayer money was spent on the mailer. (This figure appears to be very low considering the postage, printing, and the staff time spent writing, designing, and editing the piece that went to 15,000.)
The City of Olympia Responds
On October 29 the City of Olympia responds to the PDC complaints in a letter from Olympia City Attorney Mark Barber.
To summarize Mr. Barber’s defense of the city’s actions, he argues:
- The city will lose $1.5 million dollars due to lost revenue
- The city council (after a two-minute public hearing) voted for a resolution stating the council’s opposition to I-976.
- That county staff prepared “one jurisdiction-wide objective and fair presentation of the facts relating to the impact of l-976.”
- The City believes the PDC allows government entities to provide “an objective and fair presentation of facts to the public of ballot measures that directly impact a jurisdiction’s maintenance and operation.”
The logic of the city’s response is selfish at best and incredibly scary at worst. What the city is arguing is that during any public vote that might impact the city’s revenue the city has the legal authority to use taxpayer money to try to influence the election.
With this case, the City of Olympia believes that since $1.5 million dollars of annual revenue was at stake, they could spend public money encouraging voters to vote against the initiative.
Following the City of Olympia’s logic further, does this mean that if a future candidate for city council were to campaign on the pledge to cut Olympia’s taxes by 1% then the city of Olympia has the authority to mail information to voters to support this candidate’s opponent? Or, if a Presidential candidate promised to send all cities $1 million to fight homelessness, can the City of Olympia produce TV ads supporting this presidential candidate?
Regarding the City of Olympia’s argument that the mailer was an “objective and fair presentation of facts.” If the city believes this then it has a very narrow self-serving definition of “objective and fair.”
Nowhere in the mailer is there any explanation of the other side of the argument. It also does not mention that $1.5 million dollars in car tab revenue is only 0.08% of the city’s 2020 estimated revenue (which is estimated to be $176,782,834). The city has plenty of options to prioritize other money if they are concerned (as the mailer states) that the “safety and performance of our transportation system would be at risk” if the car tab revenue were to be removed.
Public Disclosure Commission Investigation and Punishment
Here is the scary part of the City of Olympia’s defense. If on the remote chance that the PDC sides with the city on the complaints, it will mean that government entities could fund large quasi-independent expenditures on all ballot measures and candidates. City, County, and State governments could legitimately state that everything on the ballot could impact their revenue and thus government entities could spend public funds attempting to sway voters. If this happens, governments will be spending far more than the $7,423 Olympia just spent.
Many will be watching as the PDC deliberates and hands out punishments in this case. (One hopes the City of Olympia is also investigating and punishing those who broke the law). The PDC needs to hand down severe enough punishments on both the City of Olympia and the individuals involved to ensure this does not happen again.
Many government entities have very deep bank accounts and they would feel very little pain if a small fine were imposed. To ensure this does not happen again, the PDC needs to make an example out of the City of Olympia and impose strong fines on the city and those individuals who produced this mailer.
There is one positive aspect of this story. Since this all began from the Olympia City Council passing a resolution opposing I-976, there has been an increase in the discussion on whether the legislature should ban this practice. While it is acceptable for the individual elected officials to state their opinion, to have tax dollars spent discussing and deliberating ballot measures is not a wise use of public funds – especially when it leads to government entities spending taxpayer funds attempting to sway elections.
Jack Smoley says
Perhaps the PDC should print some mailers and send them to the city governments throughout the state that would remind them how much money they will lose in fines if they do this sort of thing?
I strongly believe that the legislature needs to ban city councils from taking sides on ballot items with those nonsensical resolutions. I fail to see how this would not be construed to be an endorsement or condemnation of a candidate/levy/measure in an election, all being performed on the taxpayer’s dime.