California law prohibits government officials from using taxpayer dollars “for the purpose of urging the support or defeat of any ballot measure.” But on February 13, in the meeting room of the Santa Ana Unified School District, school officials revealed a political campaign that began with shaping public opinion and will end in November with a district-wide vote on a bond measure that will cost residents hundreds of millions of dollars.
Under the guise of measuring public opinion, Santa Ana school officials are trying to shape it – and they’re using taxpayer dollars to pay for it.
In April and May, Santa Ana Unified School District officials papered the city with mail that looks like a poll. The direct-mail campaign included questions about how residents would spend $479 million to “support high quality instruction, repair deteriorating facilities, provide modern science labs, replace failing heating and ventilation systems, and replace portable classrooms.”
Officials asked the questions in anticipation of a district-wide vote on a multi-million-dollar bond. On a 4-1 vote last month, the district’s board of trustees placed the bond on the November ballot.
State law allows government officials to communicate nonpartisan information, but not to engage in politicking.
“This mailing was neither a scientific survey or a poll or mere educational outreach,” said Will Swaim of the California Policy Center. “It was a push poll, an attempt by Santa Ana Unified officials to persuade voters, and that would be illegal under state law.”
A push poll is meant to promote a political message under the pretense of collecting public feedback.
The Santa Ana survey is part of a broader trend in California politics. “It’s now common for local officials seeking tax increases or bond issues from voters to hire campaign consultants on the fiction that they will provide unbiased information to the voting public,” said veteran political commentator Dan Walters.“These consultants conduct polling to determine which angles of proposals are most attractive to voters, write the measures to stress those popular features and then produce literature and ads to trumpet those selling points.”
On first glance, the Santa Ana mailing looks like an actual survey. The front page states, “Santa Ana Unified School District wants to hear from you.” On the second page, respondents are told that “developing a plan for the future of our schools should be a community-driven process.”
But the “survey” strongly implies that the bond is essential – and that it’s so likely to succeed at the polls in November that voters should start thinking about how they’d like to spend hundreds of millions of dollars.
These millions will come from Santa Ana residents and businesses – a fact the district downplays.
A bond is a loan that will be repaid by local taxpayers over a period of years. Public officials have priced the November bond all over the map – from $479 million when they first launched it, they soon raised the price tag to $518 million. More recently, without explanation, the district announced the bond was $232 million. None of those numbers include interest payments that will double the cost to taxpayers. The district is still paying off two previous bonds.
“Santa Ana’s campaign strategy is a little like sending your kids a bill in January for all the toys you gave them in December,” said Swaim. “Everybody’s excited to think about spending. It’d be great if district officials told their residents about the costs to individuals and businesses.”
One of the first things respondents saw on the April-May survey was a message in capital letters: “Improving the Quality of Local Schools.” The accompanying note from the district superintendent emphasizes the district’s pressing need for more cash.
Further, the survey asks respondents to rank their priorities on bond spending. The menu of options ranges from upgrading classrooms and repairing deteriorating roofs and electrical systems, to replacing failing heating and ventilation systems.
Critics say the district’s approval of every proposed teacher pay raise and rising pension debt is consuming so much money that almost nothing is left for facility maintenance or hiring new teachers. Hence, the November bond.
“Santa Ana can ill afford another tax increase,” says Art Pedroza, a Santa Ana resident and publisher of the website New Santa Ana. “Our residents include many seniors on fixed incomes and young families struggling to survive. This latest bond measure will raise their cost of living.
“Ultimately this bond measure is a gift to the unions at taxpayer expense.”
Kelly McGee is a Rhodes College (Memphis) graduate and CPC journalism intern.
This commentary appeared first in the Orange County Register.
Californians going to the polls on Nov. 8 will find more than 300 measures to raise taxes. And despite multiple legal decisions limiting the practice, municipal officials in California may be paying outside consultants to run the campaign to sell you on your local tax measure.
In short, government officials use the public’s money to persuade the public to give government officials more money.
If you think that’s strange, you have good company. In the 1976 case Stanson v. Mott, the California Supreme Court established the principle that would seem to govern the space where government reaches out like the muscular and fully clothed God in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” and encounters a single naked, relatively powerless American voter. The judges put it plainly: “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 factions.”
The justices allowed that providing information and opinion – educating the public – is a legitimate function of government officials.
But how do we decide what’s political and what’s merely educational?
In the 2009 landmark case Vargas v. City of Salinas, the court returned to the distinction between information and campaigning, and the “style, tenor or timing” standard, says Thomas Brown, city attorney for St. Helena, California, and a partner in the Oakland offices of Burke Williams & Sorensen.
“The potential danger to the democratic electoral process is not presented when a public entity simply informs the public of its opinion on the merits of a pending ballot measure or of the impact on the entity that passage or defeat of the measure is likely to have,” says Brown. “The threat to the fairness of the electoral process arises when a public entity devotes funds to campaign activities favoring or opposing such a measure.”
But throughout the state, public officials increasingly turn to campaign consultants. Wave a magic wand and you can declare that politicking “educational.”
Take the city of Stanton. In the run-up to a controversial 2014 local sales tax measure, city officials in Stanton made 16 payments totaling $85,970 to Lew Edwards Group, an Oakland-based political consulting firm.
The consultant’s Stanton proposal indicates the relationship was always about winning a campaign. Sent to city officials on March 18 of that year, that document declares Lew Edwards Group “the California leader in Local Government Revenue Measures.”
“Lew Edwards Group has successfully enacted more than $30 billion in California tax and revenue measures with a 95 percent success rate, including $2.34 billion in successful tax and bond measures in Orange County alone,” the proposal says. In a separate PowerPoint document prepared for the city, company officials said they achieved political success in Orange County despite “the opposition of the OC Register in all cases.”
The company’s 2011 presentation to the California Society of Municipal Finance Officials is equally political. Titled “New Taxes: How to Get to Yes,” the presentation features a section on transforming informational studies into what sounds remarkably like campaign material. That section is called “Turning Theory into Reality: How to Convert Your City Studies and Polling Results into a Winning Campaign.”
The consultants’ website warns, “A Public Agency cannot, at any time, engage in a partisan campaign.” But the site goes on to offer advice about turning over campaign responsibilities to an outside group.
In the months leading up to Election Day 2014, Stanton residents were invited to community meetings where local elected officials, city staff and county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies warned them about Stanton’s crippled finances. When they returned to their homes, residents were hammered by official mailers predicting a public-safety catastrophe if the sales-tax measure failed. Invoices show the city (i.e., the taxpayers themselves) paid Lew Edwards for at least three mailers in the last six weeks of the campaign.
Supporters of such spending – generally public officials themselves – say government has a responsibility to educate. And now it’s possible for government officials to argue further, that they have a First Amendment right to support ballot measures. In the Vargas v. City of Salinas case, Salinas officials ultimately filed an anti-SLAPP suit against the plaintiffs, two local citizen watchdogs who had filed suit to stop the city from spending public dollars on a campaign. Revealing how far we’ve drifted from a fear of government power, a court ultimately sided with Salinas, and ordered the watchdogs to pay the city’s $200,000 legal bill. The plaintiffs have since declared bankruptcy.
There may yet be a new ending in Stanton. There, critics of the 2014 sales tax rallied, and late last year qualified a repeal measure for the November ballot.
But once again, those citizens will be fighting more than City Hall. Records obtained by the California Policy Center show Stanton officials signed a new contract with Lew Edwards Group. This time, officials say they’ll spend no more than $25,000. But like the last big contract, this one ends just days before Election Day.
Will Swaim is vice president of communications at the Tustin-based California Policy Center, and was founding editor of OC Weekly.
Flyers distributed in Capistrano Unified School District schools and the main office promote the district’s upcoming $889 million property tax increase as a benefit to homeowners.
That claim would appear to be a political response to criticism of Measure M, the controversial bond on the South Orange County district’s November 8 ballot. Critics have said Measure M, which will be paid off by increased property taxes, will dampen home values.
Under the headline “Community Benefits,” the flyer distributed in schools and offices asserts that higher taxes will actually be good for home sales. “We believe that improving neighborhood schools will ultimately increase local property values and add to the real estate market value of homes in our community,” the flyer reads.
The district’s claim that higher property taxes will boost home values is not included in the version posted on the CUSD website.
The headline in the online version is also different – just the word “Community,” not “Community Benefits.”
The flyer was produced for the district by a political consulting firm.
In a legal opinion, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said, “State law prohibits school districts from campaigning in support of a bond measure.” Numerous state courts, including the California Supreme Court, have said government bodies may provide information.
District officials did not respond to several requests for comment on the change. But critics say the change is consistent with the district’s practice of promoting Measure M in ways that come close to breaching the legal standard.
“I believe school district officials have been routinely engaging in illegal express advocacy,” said Rancho Santa Margarita Mayor Tony Beall.
Even that statement is likely to elicit a response from district HQ. Beall and his counterpart, Mission Viejo Mayor Frank Ury, made a similar claim in an August 9 letter to Capistrano Unified officials. The district responded to the letter by voting 6-1 to sue Beall, Ury, and their cities.
Beall said no complaint has been filed.
The South Orange County Economic Coalition, an association of business and other institutions,
including the Orange County Association of Realtors and Saddleback College, opposes Measure M. Last month, they announced Measure M “will make prospective home buyers think twice before buying in this District.”
Catrin Thorman is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. She is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University, and a former Teach for America corps member.
UPDATE: This article was updated on October 24 to reflect a request for clarification from the South Orange County Economic Coalition. Though that organization opposes Measure M, a spokesperson said some of its members (in this instance, Saddleback Community College and the Orange County Association of Realtors) may not necessarily oppose the measure. —Editors
On Halloween 2014, Stanton, California, city manager James Box wrote to the city’s residents. City officials were at the end of a year-long campaign to stampede residents toward acceptance of Measure GG, creating a one-cent city sales tax, the first of its kind in Orange County. They had warned residents that failure to approve the new tax would lead to something like the apocalypse.
Just days before the Nov. 4 election, Box spoke to them one last time.
“I’ve received a number of phone calls from Stanton residents about the city’s budget, employees, service challenges, and Measure GG which is on Stanton’s November 4, 2014 ballot,” he wrote.
In the face of obvious public concern, Box said, he was ready to meet residents immediately – or, rather, not immediately, but in three months, long after the election, in a public park clubhouse, on a Friday morning at 9 o’clock.
Box’s nonchalant response to the “number of phone calls” is evidence that the real purpose of the communication was what political consultants call “Get Out the Vote.” That Box invoked his determination to provide “helpful information on issues of interest and concern” and “accountability and transparency” reveal how upside-down City Hall had become: he used the language of open government to obscure his real interests and to shape public concern.
Look for a similar October surprise this year. Residents this year qualified a measure to repeal the 2014 sales tax, and that measure will appear on the city’s Nov. 8 ballot.
City officials paid Lew Edwards Group throughout the first campaign, and it’s likely they drafted the letter that came over Box’s signature. They’re still on contract with the city, running a campaign for which Stanton officials have now paid them well over $100,000.
California law allows public officials to provide nonpartisan information to the public in the course of government business. In several high-profile cases, state courts have ruled that public education campaigns like Stanton’s must not be intended to influence the outcome of a political campaign.
The landmark 1976 case Stanson v. Mott established the standard: “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions. A principal danger feared by our country’s founders lay in the possibility that the holders of governmental authority would use official power improperly to perpetuate themselves.”
Despite that and other court decisions, Stanton officials have run a three-year campaign to persuade its citizens to raise their own taxes – and keep them raised. They’ve paid for that campaign with the public’s money.
The 2014 campaign featured a number of official-looking letters as well as a push-poll in disguise as a community survey. Like Box’s Halloween letter, a push-poll pretends to be one thing while being another. It’s a method of communicating (or pushing) a political message under the guise of a scientific effort to collect public feedback.
The science behind surveys is complex. That’s why it’s fairly easy to determine that the city’s survey wasn’t a survey at all.
The Stanton “Community Feedback Survey,” released to CPC following a Public Records Act request, was mailed to voters in June 2014. It featured photos of children posing alongside firefighters and police. Inside the brochure, city officials warned residents that budget shortfalls would likely lead to cuts in budgets for police and firefighters.
City officials sent a more disturbing version of the push-poll to their Spanish-language residents. That official-looking document features a severe-looking clip-art policeman at the top, and a request for compliance in responding to the survey.
The one-sided push-poll is designed not to solicit meaningful feedback, but rather to lead citizens to answers that support the council’s conclusion: the proposed sales tax is essential to maintaining public-safety. By limiting responses to nine pre-packaged “priorities,” five of which were public-safety related, unsuspecting respondents would easily come to the conclusion that public-safety spending is important and balancing the city budget (which is a constitutional requirement) is good. If framing the response they sought was not enough, Stanton went a step further by selectively placing those photos of children playing around police and firefighters — hardly appropriate for a mere a purely informational campaign.
Despite that framing, some respondents thought outside the box. Nearly one in five told the city other issues were important to them. These respondents were not primarily concerned about public safety spending, but about attracting business, homelessness, code enforcement of noise complaints, and graffiti removal. One respondent suggested encouraging marijuana clinics to relocate to the city; another said, “I wish I were a genius with ideas that could help. Maybe a lot of prayer.”
The result of the survey was not a meaningful assessment of resident’s priorities – not a dispassionate interest in public sentiment – but rather a pseudo-scientific “study” that local politicians then held up as a justification for more public spending along with tax increases.
A month after the June mailer, the city council placed Measure GG, a 1-percent sales tax, on the ballot claiming it would raise $3 million annually to avoid public-safety cuts. As part of its contract with the city, the consultant actually helped draft the measure’s ballot description. Two months after that, in September, city officials mailed residents again – this time to tell them the survey results had been tabulated and showed that huge majorities of residents agreed that public-safety spending critical and so was balancing the city budget.
The city has responded to this coming November’s repeal measure on the ballot with neighborhood meetings called “Talks with the Block” to attack the repeal effort. Once again, the 2014 feedback survey has played a prominent role in that campaign, with city officials insisting that residents asked and voted for the controversial sales tax. And once again, the Lew Edwards Group’s contract with the city ends just days before the election.
Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.