Sunday, January 29, 2012

What To Do When Your Lawmakers Break the Law?

Our present, bucolic, civic center property, with our library in the distance.

Those of you who don't live in my little town of Los Altos, California, may feel that I've been spending too much time on my local issues here on this blog, and that these local issues don't relate to you. The truth is, what is happening in my town is applicable to the serious problems we are all seeing at the federal, state and local level in recent years. Government is acting in its own interest or at the behest of special interests. Taxpayers are finding their interests least represented.

There is a law that prevents my local government from campaigning for a bond issue. I believe my local government is breaking this law. You tell me what you think.

1.  In November 2011, when I stumbled across the literature that the Los Altos City Council was producing to "educate" the citizens of Los Altos about the need to build Phase I of a Community Center Master Plan ($85M, with three subsequent phases costing an amount estimated at $165M) I spoke before the council and said their materials had the appearance of campaign literature and I hoped they would make them more transparent. I honestly thought they may not see clearly how this materials might appear to an educated voter. After I sat down the council members looked at one another and one spoke directly to me. "Just a correction on what you just said. We're prohibited by law from campaigning for a bond. So we're not doing that. We haven't decided whether to propose this bond or not. We are in the education and outreach phase right now."

2.  The next week, November 30, 2011, our local paper had an interview with our mayor which pointed out she had just two years to go in her term before she was term-limited out.  The paper wrote, paraphrasing her comments to a local gathering of Realtors: "She ... expects to oversee the funding, design, and ground breaking of the first phase of the civic center overhaul. " Since the "civic center overhaul" can't be done without a bond measure, I saw this as evidence that indeed, the city council had made the decision to go forward with a bond.

3. As the city council continued to state it was simply working on "outreach" and "education" before Christmas it signed a contract with TBRB Strategies. Visit their web site at:    TBWB STRATEGIES.  Tell me what you think it is this company does.

4. The mission statement of TBWB Strategies says: "TBWB Strategies works with public agencies to design winning public finance measures for the ballot and works with communities to run the advocacy campaigns to ensure these measures are approved by the voters. We maintain a nearly 90 percent win rate."

5. The contract with TBWB is costing taxpayers in Los Altos more than $100,000. In a city of just 25,000 people, surely, if this were just "education" and "outreach," it could be done for the cost of a Power Point presentation, which almost anyone could produce for the city council at no cost to taxpayers. Five city council members could divide our voter list and practically speak to each one of us personally, if information was what they had to offer us.

6. When one of the voters I know sent an email to the assistant city manager requesting several specifics on the Community Center costs and financing, assistant city manager James Walgren wrote him a non answer that said (and I quote from his email): "We are preparing now to train our outreach representatives and are providing them with our consultant-developed PPT and brochure and a Q & A document addressing the issues you raised below. Charles Heath with TBWB Strategies is very specific about how to frame the discussion at this stage and will continue to advise the City on this matter." Since a taxpayer cannot now get an informational answer from a city employee, whose salary that taxpayer funds, this sounds an awful lot like a campaign organization, in which everyone is carefully trained to stay "on message."

7. When I visited the police station last week to report an issue in my neighborhood, I sat and read our Los Altos Recreation Department newsletter for January/February in which I learned, quote: "The City has decided to pursue an August 2012 general obligation bond measure to finance Phase I of the Master Plan. Phase I includes a new Community Center, focused on recreation, senior, teen, and continuing education program, and a new Police Station." Sounds to me like the Los Altos Recreation Department, headquartered on the present Civic Center property, has been told the city has decided to propose a bond.  Council members told me that once they had made that decision they would be prohibited by law from campaigning for the measure.

8. In its editorial, proposing the city council wait two years before proposing the bond, our local paper, the Town Crier says: " ... the city's consultant has suggested a mail-in ballot for August."

9.  On the TBWB Strategies web site it states that August mail-in ballots are one of their best strategies to pass general obligation bonds, since fewer votes vote in these elections, thus more special interest votes can be pursued. And, during general elections (we all have a big one this November) there are other tax and bond measure that might "compete" for taxpayer dollars. The August special election will cost taxpayers approximately an extra $100,000.

TBWB's web site they state: "Sound research, such as polling or focus groups, helps public officials understand how residents and voters see their local government and what types of services they are willing to pay to support." In other words, if voters are more likely to approve a measure for a senior center, TBWB Strategies will help your city council make it appear (emphasis mine) that the bond measure is about seniors, even if a senior center is just one part of the plan. Note: this autumn the city council commissioned research on senior issues in Los Altos.

10. Among the other things TBWB Strategies advises (on their web site) is saving up deferred maintenance dollars, and technological improvement dollars to set aside so that these dollars can be used to "seed" the bond issue. In the literature our city council has approved on this issue it tells us that in the present Civic Center "... roofs leak, many of the restrooms are frequently out of service and can't be used, outdated electrical systems are unreliable and cannot accommodate modern techology ..." All this might happen, of course, if a city were setting aside maintenance and improvement dollars for several years in order to "seed" a project that this very lack of maintenance and IT improvements might appear to make even more necessary. When I read this, I wrote our City Engineer and said I was very concerned that his department was unable to keep our buildings in good repair, in a city with such high property taxes as we pay. I, for example, live in a 60 year old house and my roof and bathrooms work fine, as I keep them in repair. No answer yet from the city.

I believe my city council is spending taxpayer dollars to influence those very taxpayers to approve a bond. This is, by anyone's definition of one, a campaign. And if what they are doing doesn't break the letter of the law, it ought to.

I'm hoping to talk with both the ACLU and Common Cause to see how they view the issues I've presented here. Since a number of us have questioned what the City is doing and city council members have been very uninterested in hearing from us, and since, if we have to defeat this bond measure we must do so against what is essentially a professional bond-measure-influencing machine that is being paid a six figure salary out of tax dollars we now no longer have ourselves and thus can't use to hire our own advocate--we may need legal help in order to bring an end to it.

Let me know what you think.

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Don Meuler said...

You're definitely on to something, but who exactly enforces this law? The state AG?

Devon C. said...

How sad that governments pay a company to influence the local vote. And we are blindly naive to think "your vote counts". What really gets me is the "to ensure these measures are approved by voters". How is this not illegal?

Robin Chapman said...

I think it is very close to being illegal, but I need legal help to get an injunction to stop them. I'm going to see if the ACLU will help me. To use taxpayers dollars to propagandize them, is the most bizarre misuse of tax dollars I have ever heard. The council is very smart. Not of this has been publicized. No one in Los Altos is worried because no one thinks anyone wants this bond. They don't realize what they are up against and they don't expect this kind of corruption in what has always been such a clean little town. Any lawyer out there who wants to help out, please send me an email.

linda said...

i covered edgewater (florida) city politics many years ago. i was sitting in my truck waiting for the city council meeting to begin and caught a few council members heading to chambers for an unannounced meeting wrote an editorial the following day and nailed them for violation of the sunshine law.

sadly, i'm afraid it happens all the time out of the eye of the press1

Robin Chapman said...

I think sad is a good word for it. Though I realize corruption of our self-governing ideal began right out of the shoot, one does hate to see it in one's own backyard ...