Category: Taxpayer funded political advocacy
Stop Giving Ammo to the Enemy
By Jon Coupal
The reported instances of waste, fraud and abuse of our taxpayer dollars are so common now, it takes a lot to shock us. And regular readers of this column know that a pet peeve of those of us at HJTA is when government spends taxpayer dollars to either directly engage in political advocacy or to spend money on a bloated public relations budget.
Under the guise of "getting accurate information out to the public," most of what government does in the p.r. realm is designed to do just the opposite: Convince the public that a new program or tax increase is really what is needed to make the world perfect.
The last few weeks have given us some new examples. First, a firestorm of a controversy erupted when the massive Metropolitan Water District attempted to sneak through a 25% pension increase for its already well-paid employees. If it were not for a tenacious reporter, talk radio and taxpayer advocacy groups running radio ads, that pension hike would have gone through costing 19 million
customers in Southern California a lot more on their water bills.
The attempted larceny of taxpayers by the pension spike was bad enough, but adding insult to injury, it turns out the MWD spent $100,000 on a high-priced political consultant to try to get the proposal through. This, despite the fact that MWD has a large "external affairs" department with its own public relations staff.
This is like a robber putting on a suit so he looks good to his victims.
Speaking of pension abuse, we read with amusement that the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) is now using social networking forums like Facebook and Twitter. Part of the justification was to dispel misinformation being disseminated by its detractors -- that would be reporters and taxpayer groups. With all the reports of corruption at PERS, it is doubtful that Tweets and posts on Facebook are going to help CalPERS' reputation and they probably shouldn't waste the money. Keep in mind that taxpayers are on the hook to guarantee employees' pensions so every dollar CalPERS spends running its social networking efforts is a dollar out of ordinary taxpayers' wallets.
At the local level, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is contemplating the hiring of a spokesperson to improve its ability to tell the public about its budget problems. This "director of communication, accountability and community engagement" is needed to "communicate to our community the many issues we are facing," said Superintendent of this school district, Tim Cuneo.
Oh, please. The real reason this "spokesperson" is needed is to sell a parcel tax to voters who would otherwise be very resistant. The real insult? This new position would be funded in part from bond proceeds from bonds approved by voters for capital improvements.
Our star of the week though is the recent announcement that the mega-p.r. firm Ogilvy is slated to get the contract for the High Speed Rail Authority for -- brace yourself -- $9 million. We have to ask ourselves, why does a government agency which has no competition needs a $9 million p.r. budget? Well, the real answer is that Californians are coming around to the realization that when a bare majority of them voted for the High Speed Rail Bond, they bought a pig in a poke. Told that $10 billion would get us a top flight HSR system, it turns out the real price tag is at least $80 billion. Our suspicion is that the $9 million for public relations will be used for damage control once people understand the true cost of this boondoggle.
Taxpayers should know this: That a significant percentage of the taxes we pay are used for slick public relations campaigns to convince us we should pay even more. If this doesn't make you mad, nothing will.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association
-- California's largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated
to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of
During the Prop C campaign, the City of Encinitas spent taxpayer dollars on Tramutola, which is a consulting company specializing in helping government bodies get tax measures passed.
Here is what the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association wrote about Tramutola:
Mr. Tramutola has been described as the leading expert when it comes to passing difficult tax measures. In this capacity he’s proud of the fact he’s the patriarch for what he describes as one of the country’s most successful political consulting firms; having advised and guided more than 400 communities to successful passage of local tax measures with a success rate of over 95%!
Part of Mr. Tramutola’s “game” dictates public money be spent towards [getting the tax passed], and it be spent on him before a local revenue district gets its tax measure on the ballot because afterwards, no public money nor public resources may be legally spent advocating or supporting the measure itself.
Another part of Mr. Tramutola’s “game” dictates that once a measure is placed on the ballot a campaign plan should be developed, because every political campaign needs a plan.” Make no mistake, Mr. Tramutola has a plan!
The ETA came to similar conclusions during Prop C. Tramutola was not hired to promote a neutral election. Here is the plan that Tramutola created for the City of Encinitas.
Tramutola's opening webpage boasted that “Tramutola has advised and guided communities to successful passage of local tax measures”. It also said, “ Working with you we will design a campaign to generate the DESIRED RESPONSE.”
Tramutola was hired without a competitive bid process and they were given direction by the city orally and not in writing. You do that when trying to avoid creating a record of what you have asked your consultant to do. It certainly is not a good way to manage a government contractor.
Dalager, Stocks, Houlihan, Bond, and Guerin held hollow public hearings regarding the proposition and sent out "educational" materials to city residents using tax dollars. The voters were mislead by the city.
Tramutola's website said they could even help a city to recruit, train and empower a third party advocacy group to sell the idea of a new tax.
This is where things get really get tangled. A grassroots organization did spring up to act like there was community support for the measure. The public face of the campaign was Steve Aceti, which struck the ETA as curious. Aceti was apparently a Carlsbad resident. Why was Aceti getting involved? On the surface, some might say it made sense that Aceti would be in the campaign. Aceti is the Executive Director of California Coastal Coalition, which gets funding from cities, including Encinitas, to advocate for coastal issues. Perhaps his entrance into the campaign had to do with his taxpayer funded coastal advocacy?
If that was the motivation, it posses serious questions about the true mission of CalCoast. Should tax dollars be used to fund an organization producing misleading political propaganda sent to the same voters the organization is paid to represent?
It sure looked like CalCoast provided the campaign infrastructure for the Prop C campaign. Direct funding for materials was dominated by Dudek ($5000, 70% of contributions). Dudek consults for the city and has political connections with local elected officials.
There was only phony grassroots support for Prop C, and taxpayer funded "education" for "the desired result" emanating from Encinitas City Hall. Everyone involved was following Tramutola's taxpayer funded plan, which had nothing to do with creating an informed public.
Drafted on Dec 19th, 2008.
Here are my notes from the SANDAG meetings
Art Madrid called the Union-Tribune zealots today. It was kinda fun to watch.
The “quality of life” subcommittee was most curious about the "genesis" of the strong UT op-ed piece that came out yesterday. The UT wrote an editorial saying that SANDAG shouldn’t be using tax dollars to hire a PR firm to support the preparations for the quality of life tax. Gary Gallegos (SANDAG Executive Director) responded, "I think the $900k got their attention." He went on to say that only $195k is budgeted right now.
Mark Lewis (El Cajon) seemed annoyed at the editorial. Here is how I understood his annoyance. He said, "[SANDAG] has change orders all the time that are a million dollars. No one blinks an eye.”
Rebecca Jones (San Marcos) asked, "I didn't see the op-ed, was it bad?" At this point I expected one of the members to review the op-ed’s thesis. Instead, and I had to laugh, Lori Holt Pfeffer said, "They were naming names."
It was strongly noted that the UT didn't contact SANDAG to discuss the issue. There was a consensus that they should have a meeting with the UT editorial board. Staff also noted that they were working on a response "through the communications department of SANDAG."
Written by activist W. Lusvardi:
As someone who unsuccessfully fought a phone utility tax in Pasadena this past year, the proposed reforms of "neutral" language in mailers paid for by cities about tax initiatives won't work. The City of Pasadena, for example, used City employees to appear at city-arranged neighborhood meetings to scare citizens about its budget situation. Those opposing the tax were never invited. The City used taxpayer and city union funds to send out multiple glossy mailers. Some solutions might be:
1. Cities have to provide equal monies for mailers for the opposition just like the CPUC does for consumer advocacy organizations
2. It must be forbidden to use city employees to provide info on a proposed tax initiative at public meetings without inviting any opponents to the tax.
City's will always violate the spirit and the letter of the law about using public resources to support tax initiatives and then defy you to sue them. "Reality is what you can get away with." And the city's will get away with murder by taxation unless the law provides greater parity for taxpayers.
Representation of the financial situation was anything other than impartial:
The city responded that Measure D represented a "financial emergency" requiring a costly $432,000 special election. The city of Pasadena had amassed budget reserves and investments of about two-thirds of a billion dollars, reflecting $11,669 per household.
This last point should resonate with Encinitas residents. Remember Prop C or the lighting and landscape fee increase?
At the December 19 SANDAG meeting La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid called the UT editors "zealots" because of their editorial about the hiring of a PR firm for the "quality of life" tax.
He might have been a little sensitive because of this recent UT blog post:
When I learned that the city of La Mesa's attempt to bully voters into approving an 0.75-cent sales-tax hike with a dishonest, taxpayer-funded "public information" campaign was legal thanks to an inexplicable ruling by a state court, I got in touch with the state Fair Political Practices Commission...
...This is the ruling that La Mesa is using to send out fliers and brochures that warn gangs will take over, murders will soar and potholes will go unfilled without new revenue -- and, nudge nudge wink wink, there happens to be a sales-tax hike proposal on the November ballot.
The message that voters are supposed to take away from such campaigns, as Johnson puts it, is "The world as we know it is going to end if we don't do what they want us to do."
It was a great interview. Johnson also railed against other misuses of taxpayer dollars that he doesn't think the FPPC can curb -- specifically, the habit of cities and school boards of hiring the same slick consultants as political candidates to conduct focus groups and do polling to help city council and school board members figure out the best way to manipulate the public into voting for a project, a bond or a proposition.
That's a very good point. Anyone who watches how school bonds are put together in this state has long been aware of the crucial role that consultants play. They're the ones who decide how big the bond measure should be -- and it's not based on need. It's based on what polls show taxpayers can be convinced to swallow.
July 1, 2008
Mr. Michael Bixler
Board of Port Commissioners
Port of San Diego
P.O. Box 120488
San Diego, CA 92112-0488
Re: Expenditure of Public Monies on Political Advocacy
Dear Chairman Bixler:
The June 29, 2008 advertisement in the San Diego Union-Tribune and planned future ads in other media sources conveying "An Important Message From the Port of San Diego Board of Port Commissioners" represent a source of concern for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA).
While the letter specifically calls the message "educational" and urges readers to "examine the facts" and "learn about the Port," the underlying assertions expressed in the letter encourage readers to oppose the "Marine Freight Preservation and Bayfront Redevelopment Initiative." Simply omitting a statement that explicitly urges voters to support or oppose a ballot measure does not qualify the message as "educational" when its implications clearly represent an argument for one side only.
SDCTA's opposition to publicly funded advocacy does not reflect its position on either side of the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal initiative. Over the past six decades the Association has been active in the San Diego region on behalf of taxpayers promoting accountable, cost-effective and efficient government, and its position on this matter has been consistent. SDCTA strongly urges the Board of Port Commissioners to consider the concerns listed above and to halt the expenditure of public monies on any type of political advocacy campaign.
President & CEO
San Diego County Taxpayers Association