AS APPEARED IN THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Incumbents have an advantage when it comes to elections. Their ballot designation, or job title, give them a huge leg up and they are able to garner earned media simply by fulfilling the duties of their office. And although it is supposed to be heavily regulated, county supervisors also have access to taxpayer money for sending out invitations featuring their names and titles for “constituent events.” The rules on what is allowed to appear on event mailers and whom they can be sent to are long and specific. And yet here in Orange County, some of our elected officials like to cut close to the edge when using taxpayer dollars to send out constituent mailers.
In 2017, County Supervisor Andrew Do had the dubious honor of being sited as a reason for passage of Senate Bill 45, a bill that now regulates when these taxpayer-funded mailers can be sent during an election year. During the 2016 election year, The Orange County Register reported that Supervisor Do ramped up the use of these mailers sending out a total of 1.2 million pieces of mail just before the June primary and November general elections at a price tag to the taxpayers of over $277,000. SB45, now on the books, prohibits these mass mailings from being sent within the 60 days preceding an election.
Just this past week Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas have come under fire for a joint mass mailer that was sent to 16,000 voters for an event held in a private residence that could only hold 50 people. The mailer, which cost the taxpayers over $5,700, featured both of their names as well as that of Lee Ramos, a Costa Mesa City Council candidate whose home was being used for the event. The problem? By law the mailer had to spell out that the reason for the event was directly related to the incumbent’s job duties. In fact, prior to the mailer being sent out, James Harman of the county counsel’s office sent a memo to Supervisor Steel’s office specifically calling out that “there is no indication in the mailer that the meeting will concern issues directly related to the incumbents duties.” He then stated that adding a reference in the mailer to the subject of the meeting would “bolster the mailer’s qualification for the ‘constituent meeting’ exception.” No public purpose for the meeting was included before the mailer was sent out. I am not sure why a supervisor’s office would ignore their attorney’s direct recommendation on how to come into compliance with the rules that govern these mailers.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson actually said it best at last week’s board meeting when the mailer was debated. He stated, “That mailer very clearly looks exactly like what it is. It’s an invitation basically to a meet and greet, to get someone’s name out there. Not necessarily to discuss a particular policy.” OCTax agrees with Supervisor Nelson’s observations. And meet and greet events that are planned to simply allow elected officials to mingle with their constituents should not be paid for by the taxpayers.
The Orange County Taxpayers Association has sent letters to both Supervisor Steel and District Attorney Rackauckas asking that reimbursement be made to the County of Orange to cover the cost of this event paid for by the taxpayers.
There are going to be those who argue that a line was not really crossed, or that $5,700 is not a large enough sum of money to worry about. I disagree. There are rules in place that govern the proper way that these elected official generated mass mailings can be sent out. 2016 was an ugly election year, 2018 is already shaping up to be the same. At the very least taxpayers have the right to know that their money is not going to help bolster the advantage incumbents already have come Election Day.
Carolyn Cavecche is CEO and president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association.