Citizens currently visiting the City of Salem website are greeted with an artist’s rendering of an attractive new police facility and the text, “May 2017 Police Facility Bond Frequently Asked Questions.” There is an invitation to click on a button to learn more.
Some locals object to the advocacy they perceive on the site, as well as to the $50,000 the City is spending to educate voters about the bond.
“The City should be ashamed of how they have acted in such a brazenly political manner during this election campaign,” says Salem political activist, Alex Kohan.
The first image to pop up on the City site link is a 3-minute video posted by Salem Police Department, which had gathered more than 26,000 views when Salem Weekly went to print. The video features a uniformed Salem Police Chief Gerald Moore discussing the quarters Salem Police have worked in for decades. Moore uses phrases such as “bursting at the seams” and “substandard and overcrowded.”
At one point Moore says that under current cramped conditions, “we are limited in our ability to provide security for our citizens.”
The video encourages viewers to click another link to determine how much, or little, their property taxes would go up if the bond passes and Chief Moore provides his personal phone number for people to call if they have questions.
He ends, “We’ve heard the concerns from voters about the last levy that went out last November and was narrowly defeated. We’ve reduced the cost… “ a statement using the word “we” that critics say firmly places the city as an author/advocate for the bond. The final title reads, “If the bond does not pass, the police department will continue to operate under current conditions until and alternative pan and funding source is approved.”
Some FAQs are, “Why is the proposed police facility the option preferred by the Salem City Council,” “If passed, how much would this cost me?” “What experience does Salem have managing large projects?” and “What are the next steps?” which presupposes bond passage.
The City of Salem use of taxpayer money to pay for the website and video, as well as the appearance of partiality, concerns some community members. Kohan asks, “How is [it] legal or ethical for the City of Salem to use taxpayer money to advocate for a political measure?”
Both the website and video were approved by the Oregon Secretary of State, which governs elections statements in light of Oregon law, ORS 260.432. The law concerns personal expression by public employees, which in this case includes the City of Salem, employees, and staff.
260.432 says, in part, “No public employee shall… promote or oppose… the adoption of a measure… while on the job during working hours.”
Aleea Sharp of the Secretary of State Elections Division confirms that both the website and the video were given ‘safe harbor’ as legally appropriate.
The Secretary of State publishes a guide to its Impartiality Requirements. Requirements include that a document or statement must not urge a yes or no vote for a measure and that there be a balance of factual information.
Neither the City FAQs or Chief Moore video include any arguments unfavorable to the passage of the bond.
In addition, the city has spent $50,000 for a television public information outreach. The television ads broadcast on commercial stations are similar to the one posted on the city website.
Kenny Larson, Communications and Community Engagement Manage for the City of Salem says, “Any and all information presented through the City regarding the proposed police facility was reviewed by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office for compliance… and was found to be impartial and factual.”
He adds, “Public entities may provide factual information to educate the public regarding issues affecting the community. We wanted to make sure that the public had the factual information they need to make an informed decision, regardless of how they choose to vote in the end.”
Rules governing the spending of public funds by government officials are found in ORS 294.100, according to Secretary of State Deputy Director Brenda Bayes.
Bayes says this statute is monitored by the Oregon Government Ethics Division – although Ethics Commission Executive Director Ron Bersin says his department does not review elections expenses or statements, and that these are the purview of the Secretary of State.
“The City of Salem says that they are just providing ‘information,’” Kohan says. “I challenge anyone to look at the website they created advocating for the new police facility or the videos they have made and say that they are purely informational and not taking a position on a political measure.”
The state statute concerning the government spending of public funds on elections is ORS 294.100, with the graceful title, “Public official expending money in excess of the amount or for a different purpose than provided by law unlawful.”
The statute cites a 1972 Oregon case which decided that public money spent to advocate for voter approval of a bond issue was not authorized by law.