Author: Mathew Meyer
Can the City use taxpayer-funded resources such as website, email account, employee time and mailings to campaign for dissolution of SPUC?
Since voting to put the Referendum to dissolve the SPUC on the November ballot, the City has been aggressive in trying to convince the public to vote yes on the Referendum. Not only is the City Administrator sending emails to ordinary citizens campaigning to dissolve the SPU, but there is now a designated page on the City website about the Referendum advocating for the dissolution of SPUC and a mailer that has been or intended to be sent to Shakopee residents arguing why they should dissolve SPU. This can only be described as blatant campaigning. (The many inaccuracies and misleading “facts” on the City’s campaign page are addressed here.) It’s clear that the City is devoting substantial city employee time and taxpayer money campaigning for passage of the Referendum — in clear violation of Minnesota law.
Municipalities have known for decades that their ability to campaign for or against a ballot question are extremely limited. An opinion issued by the Minnesota State Auditor in 2014 elaborated on this issue by stating that “Based on Attorney General opinions, most local governments have traditionally understood they could not use public funds to advocate for one side of a ballot question, and that public funds should not be used to influence voters, but may be used to ‘fairly and impartially’ educate the electorate.” See, the Minnesota State Auditor “Statement of Position: Expenditure of Public Funds on Ballot Issue Advocacy” (2014), citing Abrahamson v. St. Louis County School District 2142, 819 N.W.2d 129 (Minn. 2012). One such Attorney General opinion from 2006 stated as follows:
several opinions have concluded that public resources may not be expended to seek to influence voters in upcoming elections. One category of such opinions deals with activities of a governing body in connection with elections required to approve its own proposed actions. For instance [This 1966 Opinion] states that a school board could expend reasonable amounts to apprise voters of facts pertinent to a district bonding proposal, and its members could individually and collectively voice their support for the proposal. Expenditure of public money for express advocacy for a favorable vote, however, was not authorized. [The opinion then quotes from a New Jersey court opinion:]
The public funds entrusted to the board [or in this case the City] belong equally to the proponents and opponents of the proposition, and the use of the funds to finance not the presentation of facts merely but also arguments to persuade the voters that only one side has merit, gives the dissenters just cause for complaint. The expenditure is then not within the implied power and it is not lawful in the absence of express authority from the Legislature
Citizens to Protect Pub. Funds v. Board of Ed., 98 A.2d 673, 677 (emphasis added). See also the memo from the Office of the Legislative Auditor, January 23, 2013.
Furthermore, to the extent the City campaigns for a political issue, it should be subject to campaign finance reporting requirements and regulations, as suggested in the State Auditors 2014 Statement of Position (citing Abrahamson v. St. Louis County School District 2142, 819 N.W.2d 129 (Minn. 2012)).
Were City employees directed to work on a campaign issue by Mayor Mars or the City Administrator?
A separate issue involves the illegal use of City employees to campaign for passage of the Referendum. Minnesota prohibits city officials and employees from “us[ing] official authority or influence to compel a person to … take part in political activity.” Minn. Stat. §211B.09. As the State Auditor’s opinion states, campaigning for or against a ballot question is a “political activity.”
Did the Mayor authorize or direct the City Administrator to create and update the campaign page on the city website using City employees? It’s clear from the information on their website that substantial City employee time and resources went into developing the content for the page and the mailer including those of the City finance director. Furthermore, the emails emanating from the City Administrator’s office, on his official email account, during his regular work hours, suggests that his time is substantially devoted to this issue, while being paid by Shakopee taxpayers.
Who’s going to ask the tough questions?
Given these circumstances, a diligent journalist would want to uncover the questionable actions of Shakopee City officials. A call to the County Attorney or State Auditor’s office might be helpful. Here are some suggestions of questions somebody should be asking:
- Why is the City using employee time and taxpayer resources to advocate for a ballot question in violation of Minnesota law?
- Who authorized or directed Shakopee City staff to use taxpayer resources to improperly advocate for the Referendum?
- Did the Mayor or any City Councilors know about or participate in directing staff to advocate for the Referendum?
- Has the City maintained records and complied with campaign finance reporting as required by Minnesota laws?
This is just a start. There are many more questions. Read part two.