Kosmicki: Avera letters blatantly support tax using public resources

Voters fill the booths at Ranch San Justo Middle School in November 2010.

Connect the dots, practically, and it’s incomprehensible to deny that Hollister City Manager Bill Avera campaigned—with use of taxpayer resources—in support of the proposed Measure W sales tax extension on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Avera and others at City Hall will spew the following fantasy in response: That a consultant paid $52,500 by city taxpayers (basically to say everything officials do is OK) signed off on Avera’s blatant advocacy. So everything is OK.

Not so fast.

Reality isn’t so forgiving.

This isn’t the first time Hollister officials supporting a sales tax increase—to fatten their own wallets—have walked a choreographed line with this flimsily enforced law, their rationale propped by unchecked precedent. As with the Measure W campaign culminating Tuesday on Election Day, they’ve previously used this same consultant and playbook as a cover to protect themselves against potential legal issues when it comes to possible illegal campaigning and swaying voters with, of all things, voters’ own money.

This time, Avera’s city-stamped disrespect for Hollister residents’ intellects involved the top-paid manager giving us his most offensive slap in the face yet.
The only good thing about Avera’s obvious and publicly funded adoration for Measure W in the published letters is that residents can decide for themselves whether those documents qualify as advocacy.

Read the Avera letters here and here.
Excerpts from two letters on the City of Hollister website, starting with the latest one dated August 2016, shouldn’t leave questions where Avera stands.

His letter’s headline starts the manipulation party:

“Hollister No Tax Increase Public Safety/Essential City Services Continuation Measure”

I’m feeling dizzy, so let’s break down those 11 words, which include an astonishingly efficient four messages:

Message No. 1: The measure wouldn’t increase taxes. So there’s no reason to object, right?

Message No. 2: It would, on the positive side for voters, help to fund police and fire agencies (along with every other city department, but that’s not important in Avera’s ad) that keep us poor saps safe.

Message No. 3: Additionally, Measure W would fund “essential” services only. In other words, the city staff wouldn’t throw any lavish, taxpayer-funded parties in Reno hotel suites with public money.

Message No. 4: If voters missed the first part of the letter’s headline, here’s a reminder: The measure would NOT (repeat, NOT) increase taxes.

That’s just a start. Actual text in Avera’s literature shines like an eight-figure gem.

“… Measure W would prevent cuts and maintain the current public services that residents need by simply continuing existing local funding with no increase in taxes.”

Key influential words or phrases in that sentence from Avera: “Measure W would prevent cuts”, “and maintain”, “the current public services”, “residents need”, “by simply continuing existing local funding”, “with no increase in taxes.”

Wait, that’s like every word. These guys are good.

Here’s another beauty from Avera’s poetry:

“Measure W is a no tax increase continuation of a one-cent local sales tax that will not increase the current tax rate.”

I have to count: Is that the fourth mention how Measure W wouldn’t increase taxes?

For kicks, just in case locals paying for the Avera ad wonder if city officials plan to squander their hard-earned money on an inexplicable donation to another city or the state, the letter/argument said this:

“All funds from Measure W would stay in Hollister to attract and retain qualified police officers and firefighters, prevent cuts to youth gang and drug prevention and intervention programs, support programs to retain, expand, and attract business to Hollister, and other essential city services. None of the funds can be taken by the State.”

Take a breather. There’s more. Go back to a May 17 city website post from Avera.

Once again, connect the dots: Avera cites a city-commissioned survey of 200 local residents that found—big surprise—a 91 percent approval rating of the fire department and an 82 percent approval for local police. On top of that, 64 percent of the polled residents feel safer now than in prior years.

No doubt thanks to the current 1 percent tax, right? Even Avera said so.

From the city manager, following up in the same letter: “Local voter-approved funding has been an essential part of our strategy to maintain the public safety and other services our residents rely on.”

Step back and put this into perspective. Avera, a longtime six-figure department head with Hollister, was the city’s top-paid employee in 2015. The level of funding to the city directly affects his income and livelihood, the very reason state law is supposed to protect the public from meddling by such individuals with clear conflicts of interest. If the measure passes, Avera and other city employees’ financial situations presumably are stabilized for two decades. If it fails this year and again in 2017, pay cuts and layoffs would happen.

Avera in an interview with Free Lance reporter Nicholas Preciado even acknowledged he supports the measure. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong or unnatural about that. But to publicly support Measure W, and then claim that an influence-laden letter on the same matter is neutral and merely informational, is absurd.

An accurate depiction of this situation is that more than $50,000 in taxpayers’ money toward a consultant has fostered a coordinated cover so officials like Avera can play dumb and skirt the law.

Sorry, but not this time. The city manager put his name on the letters, which speak for themselves.

There is no cover. Avera exposed himself. He advocated for the sale tax.

How significant is this tax measure to Avera and others? It’s almost one-quarter of the city’s discretionary pot of money that pays for city salaries. It adds up to an estimate of about $90 million in local residents’ funds, and that’s without inflation.

Those dollar levels are why this sort of back-door campaigning here and elsewhere throughout the state must end, and that can happen only if the public and lawmakers take notice. Whether city officials walk the line by using consultants and tricky language as shields, anyone closely observing these antics knows exactly what’s going on. Unfortunately, the law is tainted or weak, although its essence remains crucial in order to maintain fairness in elections.

On a broader scale, it’s time to put consultants like Lew Edwards Group out of business, at least the business of public manipulation with our own dollars.

Locally, Avera and others behind this scam deserve public admonishment and an investigation by higher authorities at the state.

These are adults. It’s not a grown-up response to point a finger toward precedent or to hide behind the cover of hired consultants who are paid specifically to shield politicians and bureaucrats from legal troubles.

But they will.


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