Tax watchdog bemoans government PR use before elections

This sign was in front of the old courthouse in June 2014.

A consultant hired by city and county to provide outreach on public services during a push for three separate sales tax increases contended her group does not take part in election advocacy. But the president of a taxpayer watchdog organization bemoaned the activity as “fraught with controversy.”
“First of all, we really question the appropriateness of taxpayer dollars being used for any political polling,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Sacramento-based Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
Coupal was referencing the increasingly common practice from governments and school districts before they float tax increases or bond measures. His comments came as a partner in The Lew Edwards Group consulting firm hired by the City of Hollister and San Benito County insisted her business fully understands the rules when it comes to public entities advocating for ballot items.
In a nutshell, it’s illegal to use taxpayer resources on any sort of ballot support or opposition. The Lew Edwards Group and local elected officials have claimed, instead, that the outreach is meant simply to inform the public and improve channels of communication, despite the timing relatively close to the local elections.
“We are not retained by either agency to provide advocacy,” said Catherine Lew, president & CEO of the Lew Edwards Group. “I view a significant part of our role as demystifying the budget process, which is highly technical and not easily understandable to the average person, and working with our clients to broaden the conversation about what the constituents value and need with regard to their quality of life services during this period of time.”
In June, countywide voters will decide on a proposed half-cent sales tax, Measure P, aiming to generate $240 million over 30 years for roads. In November, the county is preparing to float a 1 percent sales tax for unincorporated areas to help fill continued multimillion-dollar deficits to the general fund. The City of Hollister in November will float an extension to its 1 percent sales tax that keeps the municipality in the black.
County supervisors earlier this month agreed to hire The Lew Edwards Group, based in Oakland, for an amount not exceeding $55,000 over two years. The contract with the consultant includes such stated services as assisting the county in developing its message presented to the community, use of direct mail and other outreach mediums, and educational presentations for the public, according to an agenda report.
It’s a similar agreement OK’d on a consent agenda April 18 by Hollister council members, who supported spending about $52,000 with The Lew Edwards Group. While the county’s agreement is for two years, the city’s contract expires Oct. 31, days before the November general election.
Although some officials were careful to avoid any connection to the election matters, it did come up in public with both the city and county. Before the county board’s approval, Supervisor Margie Barrios broached how other counties have experienced success using such consultants for “education during elections.” In the Hollister agenda report with the item, one of the responsibilities noted was to “provide input on ballot measure language and assist in informing the community of the policy reasons of any ballot measure”.
When initially interviewed, Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez was adamant that the hiring had nothing to do with the election. When later told of the language in the city’s own contract, his tone changed.
“Those are all good questions,” Velazquez said.
The mayor said it would be improper for the city to take part in any kind of support, subtle or not, for a ballot item. He said he understood The Lew Edwards Group was the same firm the city hired during a prior election season, before he was mayor, when a sales tax measure had been pending.
“I do know something very clear,” Velazquez said. “The city cannot campaign for this.”
Another council member, Victor Gomez, defended the consultant hiring and said if the city is going to ask taxpayers for an extension to the existing five-year, 1 percent sales tax, which expires in spring of 2018, “it’s important for us to know what we’re doing right and wrong and improve.”
Gomez also pointed to the commonality of such agreements between public entities and consulting firms. He works full time in the San Jose political scene and mentioned how The Lew Edwards group was doing similar work for the City of San Jose during election season.
“Cities all over the State of California do this,” Gomez said.
It’s not just cities and counties, either. The practice of hiring consultants for polling or outreach during an election, without expressly advocating, has become increasingly common for school districts in San Benito County and elsewhere.
“It happens all the time,” said Coupal from the Jarvis association. “There are far greater restrictions in other states. There are outright statutory prohibitions.”
About the surveying portion of the consulting, Coupal referred to the hired work as “push polling” and said it’s akin to asking, “Do you like puppies?”
“Clearly, what they’re doing, even assuming it’s legal, what they’re trying to do is use taxpayer money to lay the foundation for future tax increases,” Coupal said.
He said it’s a “relatively new phenomenon” but it didn’t happen “overnight.”
And Edwards was adamant there’s nothing wrong with the practice, for which the firm she co-founded is primarily known. She said municipalities that have hired The Lew Edwards Group have not discussed election-related goals with her firm in the process.
“If they have such a goal in mind, my clients have never expressed it to me,” Edwards said.
Edwards called the firm “information facilitators” who work with “clients to make sure that their vision and their efforts to provide their services are put forward in a manner that solicits community feedback.”
She said there have been legal challenges related to the firm’s consulting, but none were successful.
“I want to say in the 19 years that we’ve done this for public agencies, maybe there have been two or three attempted challenges, all of which were dispensed of,” Edwards said.
The Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces campaign laws in California, is familiar with the practice of municipalities hiring consultants for outreach in the months leading up to elections. Communications Director Jay Wierenga said the more “information sounding” and “less express advocacy” involved in the wording, the “more kosher” the practice is on the legal end. He said the relationships are “relatively common” throughout the state and happen “all the time” before consideration of school bonds. Hollister and San Benito High School districts have hired consultants for similar polling and outreach services as well.
Locally, the county elections office routinely refers questions about campaign laws to the FPPC, as did Angela Curro, assistant clerk-recorder-auditor in San Benito County, when asked about consultant hiring.
“I will tell you, there’s always a fine line of what you can or can’t do,” she said.

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