Did Orange County Supervisors spend $241K in Tax Money on Campaign Mailers?
Some interesting news from Orange County, it appears that Orange County officials may have stepped up spending for their campaigns due to a state law intended to stop elected officials from campaigning with public funds in the weeks just before elections. According to county records, since late February, four county supervisors running for public office cumulatively sent out $241,000 worth of tax-financed mass-mailers to constituents, before the start of a blackout period on this type of spending in advance of the June 5 Primary. The money was spent by Michelle Steel, Todd Spitzer, Shawn Nelson and Lisa Bartlett during a six-week window. According to the Orange County Register, the mailers are billed by the supervisors as legal avenues to tell residents about their policies or actions as county leaders. Bob Stern, a government ethics expert and co-author of California’s 1974 Political Reform Act, stated the following regarding Orange County the mailers,
This is public financing of campaigns for incumbents. It doesn’t have ‘vote for me,’ but it has all the other trappings. The big tell (that it’s campaigning) is that they’re not sending out mailers in non-election years.
California law prohibits elected officials throughout the state from sending publicly funded mailers during the 60 days leading up to an election. The state legislature passed Senate Bill 45 last year after Board of Supervisor’s Chairman Andrew Do spent $277,000 of taxpayer funds to send 1.2 million pieces of mail during the 2016 election, which he later won by less than 700 votes. The 60-day blackout started April 6 this year, which is why Stern believes that the Orange County Supervisors used tax money to gain an unfair advantage over their political opponents. Steel, who was running for re-election, sent at least 115,000 mailers in the weeks before the blackout, using about $33,000 in tax money. Spitzer spent $34,000 in taxpayer funds to send 135,000 mailers in the six weeks before the state-mandated blackout period. Nelson, who was running for Congress in California’s 39th District, sent 301,000 mailers in the three weeks before the mailing deadline, costing $77,000 in public funds.
Bartlett’s office also sent $96,000 worth of mailers in March while running unopposed for re-election. According to the Orange County Register, after the blackout deadline passed, county supervisors voted unanimously to approve new restrictions on their mailers. The restrictions include requiring board members to seek legal advice from county counsel before sending the communications, prohibiting mailings from promoting events in private residences, and restricting supervisors from naming other elected public officials on the flyers. Hopefully, elected officials do not try to game the system to support their own political ambitions.