Cheney Free Press -

By Roger Harnack
Publisher 

Don't use taxpayer resources to campaign

Write to the Point

 

Last updated 11/8/2019 at 10:06am



To taxpayers, it’s just plain common sense.

Elected officials, government employees and supporting boards and agencies cannot use taxpayer resources to campaign for or against a candidate or office or to endorse or oppose any ballot measure.

To make sure elected officials and employees understand that, Revised Code of Washington 42.17A.555 specifically says:

“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 an office or for the promotion of opposition to any ballot proposition.”

In a nutshell, if taxpayers funded it, it’s off limits. That means no tax dollars, employee time, postage, office supplies, etc. can be used to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure.

The prohibition applies to all state offices, municipal governments, school districts and other taxing authorities.

Sounds simple enough. Apparently, it’s not.

Taking a cue from State Attorney General Bob Ferguson using his position to publicly support gun-control measure Initiative 1639 last year, bureaucrats and elected officials went looking for a loophole to subvert the will of the people.

And if this year’s debate over Initiative 976 – the newest iteration of a ballot measure to limit car tab fees to $30 statewide – is any indication, local government employees and elected officials now seem to think its OK for them to do the same.

For the record, it’s not.

As a “state officer,” Ferguson gets a pass and is allowed to inject himself into the ballot measure debate under the aforementioned state law, Subsection 4 and R.C.W. 42.52.020.

But look at what his involvement in ballot measures has led to this election cycle.

Last month, the city of Olympia mailed anti-Initiative 976 literature to city residents, a clear violation of state law.

Closer to home in Spokane County, the city councils of both Spokane and Cheney (and likely others) passed resolutions opposing the same.

R.C.W. 42.17A.555(1) does have a caveat that allows for elected bodies to take a position on ballot measures, but only in a properly advertised public meeting and only if the discussion provides “equal opportunity for the expression of an opposing view.”

Take notice – that caveat does not authorize the use of staff time or public resources to support such activity prior to the public meeting.

Furthermore, without statutory authorization, it stands to follow that elected bodies could only exercise the exemption through spontaneous discussion during a public meeting. But, under the exemption, any such discussion would have to be advertised appropriately, which would be illegal under the overarching law.

Clearly, the law was written in a manner to make it nearly impossible to weigh in on races and ballot measures before the public has spoken through the voting process.

While elected officials and local government involvement into I-976 is an easy one to look at, it isn’t the only instance of abuse of office this election season.

In nearby Grant County, taxpayer-funded resources were apparently used in the making of a video supporting Proposition 1, a proposed tax to pay for improving jail facilities and hiring more county deputies. The video includes a county commissioner supporting the tax while seated at his desk, Sheriff’s Office employees talking about jail conditions while standing inside the jail, prisoners inside the jail (who was guarding the prisoners or taking the video), etc. That promotional video advocating for the tax is even shared on the Grant County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, a page maintained by staff paid for by taxpayers.

The video is still online if you want to check it out.

In Kittitas County, Director of Human Resources Lisa Young is accused of using county computer and email systems to defend against accusations sitting Commissioner Cory Wright is facing in his current re-election bid. To compound the issue, Wright’s campaign allegedly used the emails in his campaign.

West of the Cascades, there are other potential violations, in addition to the Olympia matter.

There’s a South Snohomish County Fire District Commissioner David Chan wearing his uniform to campaign for himself and another commissioner.

In King County, Executive Dow Constantine is accused of using his position to campaign for candidates. A Public Disclosure Commission complaint suggests he used his staff, as well.

Then there’s city of Newcastle Deputy Mayor Linda Moschetti-Newing, who is seeking re-election to the city council. She allegedly used a town hall meeting/forum to distribute campaign materials.

And the list of potential violations goes on.

I wish I could say these types of abuses of office and taxpayer resources were rare. But, as a seasoned journalist, I can tell you they are all too common.

At least two things need to happen to help curtail the abuse of taxpayer resources during elections:

Residents need to more vigilantly monitor elected officials and public employees. And when there are instances of abuse of taxpayer resources, residents need to file Public Disclosure Commission complaints.

Rewrite state law to put some teeth into enforcement actions against those who, while on the job, use their taxpayer funded position and resources to try to influence elections. Hefty fines and jail time should do the trick. And just to make sure those public employees and elected understand, eliminate all exemptions for campaigning, especially R.C.W. 42.17A.555 subsections 1 and 4.

Our state Constitution says “all political power is inherent in the people.” To maintain that power and uphold the Constitution, public employees and elected officials should not be allowed to continue to use the people’s tax money and resources to influence elections.

“We the people” should have our say in elections, without those who work for us subverting our decision-making authority.

Roger Harnack can be reached at roger@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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