City Attorney Cautions City Leaders About Advocating for Ballot Measures

Key words are ‘impartial, objective, and educate,” says Bagneris

Published : Tuesday, September 25, 2018 | 4:47 AM

Pasadena City Attorney Michele Beal Bagneris. File photo.

With just over two months go before the November municipal elections, Pasadena City Attorney Michele Bagneris reminded the City Council Monday about the rules governing campaigning by City officials.

“Public agency resources may not be used for ballot measure campaign activities,” she emphasized in her presentation.

Cities may, however, place measures on the ballot, as well as prepare and communicate “objective and fact-based information,” said Bagneris.

Citing two cases — Stanson v. Mott (1976) and Vargas v. City of Salinas (2009) — Bagneris told the Council that public officials and City employees may participate in ballot measure campaigns on their own personal time and make contributions with personal funds.

It is not permissible, however, said Bagneris, to use public funds, including staff time and public resources, to promote or oppose a ballot measure, such as “the use of city computers to create or disseminate advocacy materials, or to produce or mail promotional brochures that are not informational and objective.”

City leaders and employees may take positions in an open and public meeting, said Bagneris, or assist in preparing staff reports to assist decision-makers in determining “impact of and position of” various ballot measures.

“I will be advocating in various forums, but not on City time,” responded Mayor Terry Tornek, a staunch advocate of the sales tax measure known as Measure I.

Both Councilmembers Tyron Hampton and Margaret McAustin said that they would be holding “informational meetings” in their districts to discuss upcoming ballot measures, including the proposed sales tax measure.

Councilmember Gene Masuda also said he was considering holding a district “informational” meeting.

When it comes to distributing information on local measures, Bagneris told the Council it is “best to deliver information through regular agency communication channels” and “to emphasize facts with no argumentative rhetoric.”

“Do not encourage voting one way or the other in the message,” Bagneris emphasized to the Council.

Fair Political Practices Commission guidelines also prohibit mailed communications that either “expressly advocate passage or defeat, or when taken as a whole and in context, unambiguously urge a particular result,” noted Bageris.

“Don’t use inflammatory or argumentative language,” stressed Bagneris. “Stick to facts and information.”

Bagneris also noted that there are civil and criminal penalties for public officials who step over the line. Civil penalties can equal a fine of up to $1,000 each day, plus three times the value of the media or resource used, whether mailer or print ad, TV or radio.

Criminal penalties include a two to four-year state prison term, along with disqualification from office

The City is required to report campaign expenditures which produce materials that advocate a particular result.

“The key words here are, ‘impartial,’ ‘objective,’ and ‘educate,’ said Bagneris, who also reminded City leaders to “ask the City Attorney’s Office for guidance” before using any City resources, including staff time, postage, computers, e-mail, phones, paper, or mailers.

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