California Government Code §54964(a) prohibits local agencies from expending public funds to advocate for or against a ballot measure or other voting initiative, with some exceptions for educational/informative materials. I believe that the city has already crossed the line into advocacy with its “Safe, Stronger Laguna” campaign.
Educational/informational materials can be said to have some characteristics, which distinguish them from “advocacy.” This distinction isn’t black or white; it requires looking at the context (style, tenor and timing) of the communication and asking some questions.
First, if the communication is merely “FYI”, we should consider: has the campaign been conducted before and/or will it be ongoing? If the FYI campaign is new, how close is its launch to an election where voters might be asked to decide on issues related to this campaign? If the FYI campaign is both new and being launched near an election it is likely that it is not educational/informational, but advocacy.
Another point to consider: if an FYI campaign is really just to educate, why spend thousands of tax-payer dollars to send mailers and conduct live seminars when most FYI information is simply posted to an agency’s website? Is the information an accurate, fair, and impartial presentation of all of the facts, or are the facts misrepresented and cherry-picked to promote a political agenda and improper campaign activity? I submit it is the latter.
Indeed, a real educational/informational campaign should impart practical information that would allow for enhanced preparedness or mitigation, as in the case of earthquakes or fire-danger, like preparing food and water supplies, or clearing dead brush. In the case of Laguna Beach’s “Safe, Stronger Laguna” campaign, it can be said that it fails the characteristics of an educational campaign aimed at improving safety and limiting risks. The information imparted does not allow recipients to take any practical actions to address the claimed dangers identified in the message. The only action it would facilitate is at the ballot box, hence this is an advocacy campaign, prohibited under §54964(a).
Even Newport Beach has recently passed a resolution prohibiting the use of public funds for tax measure advocacy, seeing the inherent unfairness and problems that can arise in these situations. The city must stop using tax-payer monies to advocate for the new taxes it wants voters to approve in November.
Mike Morris, Laguna Beach