Faced with the potential repeal of a controversial one-percent local sales tax, Stanton City Manager James Box mailed voters two weeks ago to warn that passage of a sales tax repeal will “terminate funding approved by Stanton voters” and result “in cuts to essential city services.”
The timing of Box’s letter, just weeks ahead of November 8, could be a problem for the city. Box justified his voter contact as a response to “many questions about Measure QQ.”
State Attorney General Kamala Harris stated in a legal opinion that “it is illegal to use public funds to influence the outcome of an election.” Government officials can inform the public, but cannot directly engage in campaigning. But there is a razor-thin margin between information and campaign activities.
Measure QQ, on this November’s ballot, would eliminate the sales tax increase approved by voters in 2014, and return the sales tax in Stanton to a combined state and Orange County base rate of 8%.
In his letter, Box claims the tax increase has allowed the city to “enhance existing programs” and “rebuild the city’s financial reserves.” He did not refer to the city’s decision in 2012 to issue bonds to build Central Park, a project that ballooned from $6 million to $24 million, and annual interest payments on debt totalling some $42 million over 30 years.
In 2014, Stanton claimed the city’s budget shortfall would lead to cuts in public safety spending. In order to convince voters to raise their own taxes, the city issued a series of mailings and a feedback survey – all of it, officials said, aimed at collecting residents’ priorities. In practice, the communications functioned as a push-poll – a campaigning tool used to manipulate public opinion.
Days before the 2014 election, Stanton city manager James Box mailed voters under a similar claim of the “number of phone calls from Stanton residents” he had received. He used the opportunity to hold up the feedback survey as proof that voters wanted to raise their own taxes when, in fact, the survey was biased toward a predetermined pro-public safety response.
City officials claimed that failure to approve the sales tax would lead to deep cuts in public safety. Yet, they chose not to create a “specific tax” that would have legally limited the tax revenue to public safety spending. Instead, they chose a general one-percent sales tax increase that would fill the coffers of the city’s general fund. In the two years since the measure’s passage, the city has spent millions on new park construction, expanded city services and raised public employee compensation.
Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.