Potentially flying in the face of concerns about the use of public funds for campaign purposes, the Cajon Valley Union School District appears to be spending significant dollars to promote a November bond measure that would increase area property taxes.
At least two pieces of literature have landed in the mailboxes of area residents in the last several days, clearly identified as being sent by the public school district, from the district’s return address. The glossy mailers (pictured at bottom) include positive messages about Measure EE, a $20 million bond to provide technology upgrades at schools within the District.
The material is bulk-mailed, bar-coded, and laser printed with the names and mailing addresses of District residents, all clear signs of being sent to a list of thousands of voters, data regularly obtained by campaigns from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters office.
Information vs. Advocacy
Government agencies in California are allowed to provide information on measures they place on the ballot, but are prohibited by the Political Reform Act from advocating or campaigning in support of such measures with public dollars.
The difference between “information” and “advocacy” has often been a bone of contention throughout the state, with taxpayer advocates and watchdog groups critical of agencies exploiting the law to gain passage of their favored measures.
In one recent instance, last week the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association announced that the Fair Political Practices Commission was investigating its complaint alleging campaign violations by the County of San Luis Obispo and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, charging the entities were spending taxpayer money to promote San Luis Obispo County Measure J-16, the ‘Self Help Local Transportation Tax measure’. “This is a classic case of government using taxpayer dollars to support a campaign for a tax increase,” said HJTA President Jon Coupal. “With this complaint, we hope to send a message to local officials that spending public money to support ballot measures will not be tolerated.”
Given the significance of increased scrutiny in recent years, public agency officials, district legal advisors, and political consultants very often choose a path of clear caution. Once a measure is placed on the ballot, no public funds should be used for efforts such as printing and postage for mass mailings, or TV and radio advertising, especially costly promotions that could easily be perceived as campaigning on the public dime.
Getting “around” campaign restrictions?
The Cajon Valley Union Schools’ mail pieces seem purposely designed in an attempt to get around campaign restrictions. The mailers never once ask voters for a yes vote on Measure EE, for example, but use strategically-developed, positive messages about the need for the measure’s passage and the benefit to classrooms, students, and taxpayers.
The prohibition against the use of government dollars for campaigning, however, is blind when it comes to need or perceived need. Voters get to decide the outcome of a proposed measure, based on all the legal campaign advocacy “thrown” at them, not by means of their very tax dollars being used to convince them to increase taxes.
“As a parent, taxpayer and elected official, this is flat out wrong,” said Mark Robak, an elected board member of the Otay Water District and Cajon Valley resident.
Barry Jantz, a resident of the Cajon Valley School District and CEO of another East County public agency, the Grossmont Healthcare District, reacted with surprise by the mail pieces. “I’m not inclined to step into another agency’s business, but I’m also a taxpayer in Cajon Valley. I can tell you, I’d never advise my elected board or any agency that this is somehow appropriate.” Jantz, however, encouraged Rostra to query school officials to determine if a mistake was somehow made and to ask about the nature of the legal advice given to the district.
What kind of mistake, if any, is unclear. According to online filings, a campaign committee has been established, “Yes on Measure EE for Cajon Valleys Schools.” However, that committee shows only $50 in expenses thru 9/24/16 and a cash-on-hand balance of about $400. In the last two weeks, another $2,625 in contributions was reported. None of these amounts, however, would appear to cover the cost of two or three district-wide mailings.
Clearly, the effort being conducted is not solely through a privately operated campaign committee, but by the school district itself.
Querying Cajon Valley officials
SD Rostra posed written questions about the literature to Cajon Valley officials and all school trustees, including whether the school board approved the expenditure of funds for the mailings, how they justified the practice, and if they sought legal and/or political advice as to the appropriateness of using public funds in such an effort.
“We are very well aware of the issues you mentioned,” responded Cajon Valley Superintendent David Miyashiro, “and are in complete compliance with the law and government regulations in regards to campaign restrictions.” Miyashiro also offered to meet with Rostra writers, yet the district is invited to provide additional written detailed justification if it so chooses.
It was safe to surmise that school officials would defend their efforts by claiming the mailers are only informing the citizens of the district about the measure, not advocating for a yes vote. Yet, the messages used in the mail pieces and the likelihood of thousands of dollars spent on printing and postage seem to tell another story.
Similar questions were sent to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA), which has endorsed Measure EE. Despite its support for some tax measures, such as in this instance, the group has long opposed government agencies using public funds to promote those measures. SDCTA has not responded to questions, but is still invited to do so.
A response from Republican School Board members
The San Diego County Republican Party has taken a neutral position on Measure EE, despite a policy in recent years of across-the-board opposition to all bond measures and tax increases. As well, three of the current school board incumbents are registered Republicans, Jo Alegria, Jill Barto and Justin Slagle.
Late today, a statement from those three Cajon Valley trustees was provided to Rostra:
Justin Allen Slagle, VP
Jo Alegria, Clerk
November 1, 2016
The Governing Board of the Cajon Valley School District was aware that district funds would be used on informational mail pieces to inform voters of measure EE as allowed by law. Two informational pieces were sent out by the district and one piece was sent out with funding from Jones Hall and Cajon Valley Education Association (CVEA).
The Governing Board advised District staff to run all materials sent by the district by Legal Counsel in order to make sure that there was no advocacy language in the mail pieces. This was done in accordance with the board wishes and the Superintendent, Dr. David Miyashiro and Assistant Superintendent Scott Buxbaum, have both reassured the board that district legal counsel and Dale Scott (Dale Scott & Company Financial Advisory Services – board approval September 27, 2016 Consent Item G) have advised the district that the mailers had an “equitable basis”. (ED CODE 7058).
However, the Board did not see or approve the final draft of the mailers before they were sent out. In the future the Governing Board will direct district staff to run these types of materials by the board before publication and community release.
It is our hope that this issue does not distract from the work that was done to bring all stakeholders to the table in order to put forth a measure to the voters that is both good for students and fair for tax-payers.
The response is appreciated. The other Cajon Valley school board members are still invited to provide their views.
The reality of ballot measure campaigns
When government agencies place measures on the ballot, an agency manager (such as a city manager or school superintendent) or another top administrator is often tasked with helping to oversee the campaign effort, on their own time, without using public resources. Such voluntary efforts by public employees on non-agency time are quite the norm and appropriate. Campaign consultants are typically engaged, campaign bank accounts put in place and fundraising efforts are started — none publicly funded.
A months-long campaign effort can be a difficult task for a government agency employee that typically still has the public’s work to do. On top of their “day job,” they are often tasked with ensuring an adequate fundraising effort to pay for legitimate campaign advocacy in gaining passage of a measure.
Yet, let’s face it. It would be so much easier to not have to conduct a separate campaign effort and not have to go out and raise dollars. It would be so much easier to instead simply find a way to use already-in-the-bank public funds to promote the cause.
After all, it’s other people’s money.
Legal? … what of appropriate?
“As a parent in the district I recognize the importance of ensuring our students have access to the resources to excel and thrive,” said Jim Miller, a Republican vying for a board seat in November. “However, as a candidate for the board the use of district funds on a political campaign, however proper or noble, should be taken very seriously and be limited to the letter of the law.”
Whether the Fair Political Practices Commission and groups like Jarvis Taxpayers view the practice as within the “letter of the law” may be the basic question.
Based on the response from Alegria, Barto and Slagle, the school board members were aware of the effort and — although not seeing the messaging chosen for the mailers until after the fact — were advised by school officials of the legality.
Of course, there’s legal, then there’s appropriate.
It is the public’s dollars.
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Two of the Cajon Valley mailers (click for larger views):