State law prohibits government officials from using taxpayer dollars in political campaigns. But on June 8, Keith Weaver of Government Financial Strategies stood before the Capistrano Unified school board, coaching trustees on how to pass an $889 bond measure on the November 8 ballot.
“November elections do better,” said Weaver, whose Sacramento-based firm has been paid at least $400,000 to manage what the district calls an outreach campaign. Weaver went on, telling the board that November is “when we have a lot of turnout. I would encourage us to focus on voter registration and focus on getting people to the polls because turnout helps bond measures.”
Under California law, government officials are allowed to provide information to the public for the purposes of voter education. They are prohibited from engaging in direct campaign efforts for tax increases.
But throughout the state, public officials are blurring the line between information and advocacy – often paying firms like GFS to run point on political campaigns, and especially campaigns involving tax hikes like Capistrano’s Measure M.
Capistrano Unified contracted with GFS for the purpose of “community engagement,” according to district documents. On its website, the company says it operates to assist the public sector in generating revenue – what most people call taxation. GFS’s website provides information on how to organize efforts to pass bond measures such as: “centrally organizing publicity efforts, involving students in volunteer activities, and reaching out to the senior citizen population.”
Capistrano USD has also contracted with another public affairs organization, Los Angeles-based Cerrell. That company’s website boasts Cerrell has “financed billions of dollars of public projects” through its “public communication” efforts. The website highlights Cerrells’ April 2015 role in passing Glendale’s Measure O, a two-percent increase of Glendale’s hotel tax: “strategic guidance, messaging, materials development and multilingual communications successfully educated Glendale voters… While voters rejected the other three measures on the city’s municipal ballot by wide margins, Measure O passed with nearly 60% support.” Cerrell credits the victory to its “comprehensive and compelling public education program.”
Since September, the district has paid Edelman some $24,000. At a September 28 meeting of Capistrano trustees, the district claimed Edelman would not be working on Measure M though documents indicate they’re being paid for “community engagement” efforts from October 1 through December 31. One of the nation’s oldest public relations companies, Edelman has managed marketing for such corporate giants as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, and Starbucks.
Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.