Some key points on the question of whether elected officials are in violation of any laws when supporting campaign related issues…
Let’s start with a “given.” In no circumstance can or should public resources be used for political campaign activity. That goes for both elected officials and their staff members while they are engaged on the public dime. Let’s hope we can all agree on that one.
Those elected to office do not give up their fundamental, constitutional right to be involved in political campaign activities, as long as they are not using public resources to do so. If you disagree with that assertion, read no further, because you may simply have a problem with the Bill of Rights.
This may not be as obvious, but it is the case: Elected officials are allowed to use their elected titles for political campaign activity. Yes indeed. Think about it a bit. When incumbents run for re-election or for another office, are they barred from campaigning using their current titles? Nope. In fact, they are even allowed to use their elected titles on materials produced using public resources, i.e. in their ballot designations and statements listed in the sample and actual ballots. Is anyone going to say that it is somehow unlawful for the four top contenders for mayor of San Diego to list as their ballot designations, respectively, Member of the City Council, Congressman, Assemblyman and District Attorney?
When a public agency crafts particular ballot language – with the intent of getting it passed, of course – public resources are clearly utilized do so, which is very much legal. Government staffers don’t typically go through that process in a vacuum, by the way. Elected officials are very much involved in the direction taken, and sometimes even in development of the specific language itself. In a word, legal. Once the measure is placed on the ballot, however, the agency is limited to providing only information about the measure, not in campaigning to achieve voter approval.
Yet, once on the ballot, elected officials also have the right to list their names and titles in conjunction with measures they may support or oppose. This includes their names and titles being used as signers on arguments listed as part of the ballot information (again produced with tax monies, mind you), even if their individual position may be at odds with the official position of their public agency and/or their colleagues.
It’s clear Governor Jerry Brown can’t use the Capitol building and his government staff to campaign for anyone running for state legislature. But, when he endorses someone, it’s as Governor Jerry Brown, not just as Jerry Brown. It’s his absolute right to use the title he earned to support others vying for office, as well as ballot measures. When Barack Obama endorses candidates running for Congress, it’s not typically using the title of “Retired Senator,” by the way.
Former Governor Gray Davis was once “outed” for making a campaign money request of a group during a meeting in his Capitol office. Indeed, it is an issue for every elected official and staffer to differentiate between their government and campaign related activities, while not mixing the two. I won’t begin to advise how to adequately police that ant hill, other than by means of a personal honor system. Those not imposing such a system on themselves may simply inevitably end up in a world of hurt, or maybe even scandal.
Yet, it is just as important to understand that most public agencies view the time of elected officials as their own to decide, partly because they are representing the public on a full time basis (even local “part-time” officials), whether at city hall or in line at the grocery store. Other than the scheduled public agency meetings he or she is required to attend, if an elected official chooses in one day to go back and forth between four campaign activities (not on government property, of course) and four public meetings, that is largely an individual decision.
If City Councilmember Jones spends countless evenings and weekends at community events representing the public, that’s a choice. If Trustee Smith, alternatively, does no public business other than attend the monthly school board meeting, and doesn’t even read the provided material before voting, it may impact her at re-election time and incur the wrath of some colleagues, but such actions would also be a choice. Unless elected officials are forced to punch a time clock, it is legal for them to be involved in campaign activities during “regular hours,” as they often have no such thing.
Much of the debate on this matter over the last couple of weeks confuses two very different matters: The illegality of using government resources for campaign activity, and the absolute legal right of elected officials to be involved in political campaigns, while using their elected titles. It would be helpful if those making bold pronouncements would understand the difference.