What’s the difference between “communications” and a political campaign? The difference should be obvious. When you engage in a political campaign, you are explicitly supporting a particular candidate or ballot measure. When you are “communicating,” you are compelled to limit yourself to presenting objective facts and information to the public; you cannot take a stand for or against a candidate or ballot measure.
What if, sometimes, it doesn’t matter? In the case of California’s cities and counties that are desperate to raise taxes and secure additional bond financing, their taxpayer-funded “communications” efforts vs. political campaigning is a distinction with almost no difference.
After all, it is merely informative to tell voters that the city needs more money to hire more police and firefighters so octogenarian widows aren’t sexually assaulted in their burning houses. These sorts of messages are not political ads, they’re just “communications.”
And through that massive loophole pours countless millions of taxpayers money every election season, out of city or county coffers and into the hands of political – oops, communications – consultants. The results are not ambiguous. California’s voters routinely approve 70% of all local tax increases and 80% (or more) of local bond measures. And these voters, as taxpayers, fund the communications campaigns that often wield decisive influence over how they decide to vote.
A California Policy Center report from October 2016, “In a Political Campaign, City Officials Can Spend Your Money Against You. They Call it ‘Education’,” provides more information on this arguably corrupt practice. In the article, a consulting firm that specializes in this sort of work is identified, the Lew Edwards Group based in Oakland. On their website, two of their “areas of expertise” are “public agency services” and “political consulting.” Here are the respective activities in each of those areas – can you tell which is which?
- Assessing community support through public opinion research
- Developing an informational communications plan to expand community awareness of fiscal/service needs
- Finalizing a planning timeline and budget
- Helping to identify other professionals as needed for your team
- Training public agency staff on external Speakers’ Bureau activities and other informational outreach
- Developing an earned/social media/web-based strategy and content
- Developing informational collaterals
- Providing Rapid Response services
- Providing input to the Agency Counsel on voter handbook materials
- Developing a political strategy, calendar, campaign budget, & voter targeting
- Directing polling efforts
- Drafting candidate statements, ballot arguments & rebuttals
- Providing advice, strategies and content for fundraising, traditional/social media, & websites
- Conceiving, writing and producing your campaign’s media program, including logo, mailers, signs, radio/TV/YouTube or Vimeo spots, e-organizing and outreach
- Overseeing volunteer/field operations, including designing field goals, a visibility plan, voter registration, volunteer trainings & vote reminders
- Managing vendors to the campaign, including printers, mailhouses, graphics, media & polling professionals
A careful review of these two lists shows remarkable congruence.
If you want to ensure that your city or county does not spend taxpayer money to engage in “information campaigns” that for all practical purposes are highly effective advocacy efforts that routinely convince voters to support higher taxes and more public debt, you can enact local measures to curtail this activity. What follows is an example of a resolution banning the use of public money to pay for staff time or outside vendors to conduct political campaigns under the color of “education” or “communications”:
PUBLIC ‘INFORMATION CAMPAIGN’ REFORM – SAMPLE LANGUAGE
WHEREAS, California’s public officials have sought to raise local taxes and fees through political campaigns designed to appeal to local voters;
WHEREAS, in preparing for these campaigns, city officials have increasingly used the public’s money to pay for staff time, outside vendors to conduct political campaigns under the color of “education” or “communications” efforst that are otherwise protected by the First Amendment.
WHEREAS, in the 1976 case Stanson v. Mott, the California Supreme Court explicitly prohibited the use of public money in political campaigns, saying, “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in a election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several factors.
WHEREAS, the Californians we represent expect that this body will not use public funds in any way that may be reasonably construed as a attempt to influence an election;
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED:
Article 1. This city/county will not use public money – either internally, through its own staff and treasury, or externally, through the hiring or use of outside vendors – to engage in public education; public opinion polling or studies; or communications intended or may seem to be intended to determine the outcome of political campaigns.
Article 2. This city/county will fully disclose and make available – online and in public meetings and in public places – any documents, including contracts, communications, or proposals with vendors and/or staff which touch on public education; public opinion polling or studies; or communications which might seem to a reasonable person designed to determine the outcome of political campaigns.
Article 3. Every city/county official – elected, appointed or in any way employed with this city – is duty-bound to declare publicly a violation of this resolution.
Article 4. This city/county will never use force – including lawsuits – to derail an attempt to disclose the potential violation of this resolution.
ADOPTED ON THIS DAY OF _____________________________