Local Taxes

City of Campbell Fined for Using Tax Dollars to Campaign for Tax Hike

City of Campbell Map

The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) this month fined the city of Campbell $35,000 for violating the Political Reform Act by using tax dollars to campaign for a tax increase on the 2017 ballot.

The FPPC, California’s enforcement agency for campaign violations, ruled that Campbell funded newspaper advertisements and mass mailings in support of Measure A and Measure C and in opposition to Measure B in the April 2017 special election.

Measure A proposed a gross receipts tax on medical marijuana businesses and Measure C proposed a temporary prohibition on marijuana dispensaries. Measure B sought to ease restrictions on the cultivation, delivery, and dispensing of medical marijuana. Voters approved Measures A and C, and rejected Measure B.

The city violated the law “by failing to include a proper advertisement disclosure statement in its newspaper advertisements, sending prohibited mass mailings at public expense, failing to timely file three late independent expenditure reports, and failing to timely file one semi-annual campaign statement,” the FPPC concluded.

Two months before the election, the city and a consulting firm entered into a contract “for the purpose of assisting with the development and implementation of a public awareness strategy regarding medical marijuana dispensaries.” The contract stated that the consultants would provide consulting services, newspaper advertisements, mailers, and online digital advertising. City staff, including the city attorney, worked with the consultant to produce the materials.

“The [FPPC] Enforcement Division has reviewed the materials and determined that the newspaper advertisements and mailers unambiguously urged voters to support Measures A and C and to oppose Measure B,” the agency stated, adding that “the City paid $57,418.78 for campaign related communications at public expense.”

After studying the newspaper ads purchased by the city, the FPPC reported:

“The style, tenor, and timing of the newspaper advertisements establish that they are campaign materials that unambiguously urged a vote in favor of Measures A and C and against Measure B. … [The ads] read like a long-form opinion piece aimed to discourage readers from voting for Measure B (the citizen-led petition) but instead to vote for the Measures placed by the City. … The article was not consistent with the City’s normal communication pattern or style and instead, the style was consistent with writing used in campaigns to urge voters towards a particular outcome. The newspaper advertisement was informational in nature, which is permissible government speech, but the advertisement also contained inflammatory and argumentative language.”

The city also sent registered voters mass mailings “to unambiguously urge a vote for Measures A and C and against Measure B, and the mailings were not consistent with the City’s normal communication pattern or style,” the FPPC stated.

The FPPC concluded that Campbell violated the Political Reform Act on seven counts, and the commission approved the maximum penalty – $5,000 per count, for a total penalty of $35,000. “Significant public harm” was caused by the actions, the agency added. Campbell stipulated the facts presented in the FPPC’s decision.

The city can pay the fine using tax dollars. (CalTax: While the FPPC’s action is welcomed, state law provides little deterrent effect – the election results were upheld and none of those who authorized the spending were held accountable.)