Public officials are getting into a habit of using their offices to campaign against ballot measures
“Unfortunately, we all know that Clark County Commission is no stranger to violations of state law,” said Ballot Question 7 campaign manager Neal Levine.
He was speaking on Sept. 19, just after the corruption-tainted Clark County Commission adopted a resolution opposing Question 7 while it met in a public facility and used public resources—something the commission is forbidden by state law to do.
The commission isn’t the only one. In Washoe County, the Regional Transportation Commission has used its taxpayer-funded Web site to post anti-Ballot Question 2 material.
And the Nevada attorney general’s office has received a formal complaint against Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick for using his office to campaign against Question 7. Gammick allegedly held a news conference to attack the ballot measure at the district attorney’s office on Oct. 3 after dozens of clergy endorsed Question 7.
The complaint reads, “Mr. Gammick’s conduct is the latest in a mounting effort by certain public officials who oppose Question 7 to push their private views and agendas … all at the expense of the integrity of their respective offices. … As long as these officials believe they can interfere with Nevada’s legislative process, they will continue to do so.”
Responding, Gammick said, “Yeah, it’s all bullshit. That’s not what the law says.” He contended that the statute applies only to the use of public funds for political advertising.
Question 7 seeks to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol instead of prohibiting it. Question 2 seeks curbs on the use of condemnation powers by public agencies.
Nevada Revised Statute 261.554 says that “a public officer or employee shall not request or otherwise cause a governmental entity to incur an expense or make an expenditure to support or oppose: (a) A ballot question. (b) A candidate.”
Anti-Question 2 material posted on the Regional Transportation Commission Web site at www.rtcwashoe.com/news/pobor/ballotquestion.html claims in part, “[I]t would most likely cause enormous increases in the amount of litigation. … Recent media reports state the Nevada initiative is funded by out-of-state interests.”
The site quotes RTC chair and Sparks city councilmember John Mayer: “This is a ballot initiative steered by eminent domain attorneys and funded by a real estate developer. [It] can only leave me to wonder who is going to pay and who is going to benefit.”
RTC spokesperson James McGrath said that his agency also posted links to other material, both pro and con, about Question 2. He said informing the public of RTC’s view of the financial implications of the ballot measure is not campaigning and can be done within the law. “It is our responsibility to tell voters that adoption of the ballot question will have significant financial impacts. That is not a lie nor does it predicate a ‘no’ vote. … RTC believes people need to know that there are significant costs associated with the question.”
However, the law does not distinguish between financial arguments and other arguments, nor does it say that including opposing views mitigates the use of public resources by official agencies. Both sets of arguments are prohibited. The law bars any expenditure “to support or oppose.”
Public officials seem to feel particularly free to use public funds against marijuana measures. In 2002, Bush administration drug czar John Walters stumped Nevada in two campaign trips, touring the state with a motorcade and entourage. The White House also ran anti-marijuana television commercials.
But Walters refused a demand from Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller that he file the required campaign disclosure forms. Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval criticized Walters’ behavior, but no accounting of taxpayer dollars expended in Nevada by Walters was ever made. The White House also ignored an order for an explanation from the Nevada Supreme Court, and the court ultimately declined to act.
Last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Walters’ office had violated federal law by distributing prepackaged video news reports to local television stations. The reports did not disclose their taxpayer-funded nature.
GAO counsel Susan Poling said, “What is objectionable about these is the fact the viewer has no idea their tax dollars are being used to write and produce this video segment.