Veiled Advocacy Communications

By: 
Ian Patton

The City of Long Beach has a history of blatantly violating the law by converting tax dollars into what the California Supreme Court (in Stanson v. Mott), called “veiled advocacy” communications in support of one electoral outcome versus another on the ballot.

In other words, the city has routinely reached into your own pocket to persuade you to vote for the current political leaders’ own interests when it comes to ballot measure items, such as the extension of term limits or the introduction of new taxes. Campaigns are supposed to be privately funded through regulated and disclosed donations, so this practice is one of the great outrages in our recent civic history.

When it comes to the measures currently on the ballot, the city is clearly engaging in this illegal practice again, albeit more subtly this time. In the past, the city sent out overtly campaign-style mailers, with imagery and strongly tendentious messaging clearly suggesting in every way just shy of direct advocacy (i.e. explicit words like “Vote Yes on…”) that voters should vote “Yes” on the ballot measures put forward.

This year, the mailer put out is at least shorn of the campaign style images and the wording is superficially a bit more neutral in tone. Perhaps they’ve been listening to the legal warnings I issued in the past as executive director of the Long Beach Reform Coalition.

Unfortunately, there are still way too many egregious, politically tendentious aspects to the current mailer.

For one thing, the decision to issue it was not debated by the City Council. Rather, once again, it was done as an “emergency” approval by the city manager, despite the fact that there was no emergency.

At the same time that the council debated putting these ballot measures before voters they could have debated spending tax dollars on these so-called “informational mailers,” which purport to provide additional information beyond what voters receive in their LA County sample ballots (which, unlike these city mailers, include legally mandated space for residents to submit counterarguments and balanced perspective). Instead, the city chose to use a clearly dishonest emergency designation, which allows the city manager to spend up to $100,000 on any item without council approval.

Furthermore, as a result of the need to shoehorn the mailer under the $100K “emergency” disbursement cap, these mailers are not simply sent to every resident. They are indeed further politicized by being sent only to a list of voters considered “high propensity” by a political campaign data-consulting firm. All residents are supposed to be treated equally, but when it comes to the city’s attempt to campaign with our own tax dollars, they create a voting history criterion threshold. That allows them to send just as many mailers as possible for $100K, just to the residents most likely to help them win an election night (or soon thereafter) victory.

Lastly, and perhaps worst of all, the text of the mailer is riddled with errors which inevitably redound to the benefit of City Hall in its quasi-Yes campaign. While the tone of the wording is indeed a bit more neutral than in the past, crucial details are omitted from this “additional information,” rendering it highly misleading to the public.

For example, the summary of Measure LBC says that a “yes” vote aligns the city’s elections with the state election schedule and goes on to note a state law, SB415, “which required non-charter cities to move their municipal election dates to statewide election dates” when local election turnout was substantially lower (which is almost universally the case, given that municipal elections receive little or no broad regional/TV media attention).

This description omits the entire pertinent history of SB415, which was in fact written to include all California cities and was enforced as binding on all cities until the California Supreme Court ruled it (in a case brought by Redondo Beach) unconstitutional for charter cities.

Charter cities, like Long Beach, are cities that have enacted their own unique local city charter in order to retain local control over matters such as elections, and land use, rather than being ruled by Sacramento on such matters of local concern.

The fact is, our current election dates this year are in fact a violation of our own city charter, which clearly states that primaries must be held in April and runoffs in June. As a result of the Redondo Beach decision, our charter became legally operative for us once again and the City Council chose simply to ignore that fact, passing a resolution that our elections would remain aligned with the state this year due to the delays in receiving federal census data last year leading to delays in our redistricting process.

While that may have been an arguable excuse, the city’s own outside counsel advised that the city could not just unilaterally violate its own charter and needed to seek special dispensation for this one election cycle from a judge. The city simply ignored that advice, presumably betting that no resident would notice in time or care enough to take the city to court, or that if someone did, we could deal with the legal thicket then.

There would be no such census/redistricting excuse for future election cycles, however, and the council understood that to maintain the state calendar alignment, an amendment to the charter would have to be passed by the voters (ironically on an election date itself violative of the very language in the charter potentially being amended), leading to Measure LBC.

What does all this history (completely and totally left out of the city’s “informational” mailer, by no accident) related to SB415 and calendar realignment tell us? It tells us that another statement in the city’s mailer, that election calendar alignment is “intended to facilitate higher voter participation” is actually a highly politically motivated, misleading statement and really the key to understanding Measure LBC.

Suffice to say, incumbent politicians would not be so committed to remain aligned with statewide elections, even at the cost of violating our own charter, if there were not a strong political motivation. Politicians much prefer to choose their electorates than to be subject to an (untailored) electorate choosing them.

Voter “participation” is an interesting and relevant term here, because there are different levels of participation by different voters. Some voters who study local issues closely, are part of the minority paying close attention to local print media and take a serious interest in what are called “down ballot” local government candidates and ballot measures. Other voters take no interest in local affairs and only vote because they are motivated by national or statewide, partisan matters or issues subject to high profile (usually TV) debate, discussion and advertising.

We know that these are two different groups of voters (although overlapping to an extent), because of the far lower turnout for local-only elections (despite no additional barriers to voting) than state/federal-only elections. It is just that delta between those two electorates that makes incumbent local politicians salivate, because they understand that people who aren’t interested in voting in local matters, yet who are presented with those choices at the end of a larger ballot through calendar alignment, will likely fill out the entire ballot, regardless of its added length and will be far more susceptible to the misleading campaign mailers they can pump out for those new local candidate and measure ballot lines.

Incumbents, with campaigns powered by the city hall special interests whose beds they feather while in office, have far more money for far more glossy mailers, to lead or mislead this new set of voters right down the primrose path. It’s the far more skeptical local-issues voters, who take a direct and active interest in local affairs, which scare local incumbent politicians the most. Those are the voters paying the most attention to what they actually do in office and most likely to hold them accountable. So it’s no wonder they would go to any lengths to drown out their votes with a newfound overall electorate, one that can also be swayed by party endorsements, which are also controlled by the incumbent politicians (and made in small rooms among small groups of politically connected players).

If this sounds like a complicated argument, it’s really not. It’s the basic reality our local politicians have been dealing with for ages and are hyper-aware of and hyper-motivated to find ways of handling in their favor. For them, calendar realignment away from local-only elections has been a dream come true.

And this “informational” mailer goes a long way toward making sure voters don’t question what’s really going on with Measure LBC, which might jeopardize this newfound political tool for manufacturing a selected electorate. And they didn’t even have to hold a fundraiser or call a special interest’s lobbyist/campaign cash broker to send it out. We the taxpayers paid for our own propaganda, with the city seal affixed, intended to convince us there is nothing politically motivated whatsoever behind one of the most highly political ballot measures one could possibly conceive of.

Yet while the summary for Measure LBC is extremely misleading, omitting a relevant world of background info, the summary for Measure LBU does it one better: It is outright false, no other way to say it.

It states: “A ‘yes’ vote on Measure LBU is a vote in favor of aligning the school board’s elections with the state election schedule. A ‘no’ vote on the measure keeps the current cycle.” Quite simply, everything – and I mean everything – about that statement is 100% false. Not simply misleading, or omitting, but false.

In fact, the text of the LBU charter amendment says nothing whatsoever about aligning with the state elections schedule. In fact it ties the school board calendar to the city’s election calendar. That calendar will not be decided until we know the results of the vote on Measure LBC, which will only align with the state if approved by the voters.

Furthermore, a ‘no’ vote definitely will not maintain “the current cycle,” which is of course a June primary and a November runoff, the election currently before us. Indeed, the school board followed the city’s lead in illegally violating its own charter (which in fact is the City Charter, a section of which serves as the school district charter) this year and unilaterally using the redistricting excuse to maintain election alignment with the state. That calendar is governed by separate language in the charter, which has also given the school board April/June elections for many years and a ‘no’ vote would cause the school district elections to revert to those dates.

Once again, the entire intent of the city mailer’s language is to gloss over the political motivations behind these charter amendments and create a sense of these ballot measures simply serving as a bit of housekeeping in order to maintain the status quo and boost “voter participation” (once again, of the absolute minimal, yet useful to incumbents, variety of “participation”).

When it comes to Measure E (the creation of a “director of police oversight”) and Measure BB (consolidation of the our city-owned water, gas, & sewer utilities), once again the intent is to mislead the voters by emphasizing what the city prefers to emphasize about these choices.

Measure E’s language of course emphasizes the new position being created, while failing to note that it absolutely eviscerates the little power the current citizens’ oversight commission has to review and make recommendations about police misconduct. It also steers the reader away from the fact that the new director of police oversight him- or herself would have almost no independent power to investigate most potential misconduct. Instead, he or she would rely on the direction and forbearance of the city manager, a highly political position, in recent times largely a de facto puppet of the mayor, which has been the core problem with the current approach to police oversight.

Our current commission has been routinely overruled by the city manager. Yet, instead of creating more independent oversight, this measure creates an even less independent system. Nowhere in the summary of this “informational” mailer is there any information to that effect, though, or even a suggestion that there might be another side to the argument.

And when it comes to the absolutely Orwellian, disgusting sham that is Measure BB – a clear attempt by City Hall to maintain its lawless theft of water ratepayer dollars, for which it’s been thoroughly humiliated by two sets of litigation now successfully brought by ratepayers, forcing City Hall to issue tens of millions in refunds – the city “informational mailer” truly reaches the abysmal depths of propagandistic rag ignominy.

Essentially, City Hall views our public municipal water utility, not primarily as a means of local management of increasingly precious H20 resources, but rather as a piggy bank to squeeze money from, by looking for creative ways to siphon off cash.

First, as background, years ago the city engaged in an illegal scheme to charge its own water utility to “rent” our own city pipes. Then, later, it violated Prop. 218 with an illegal transfer tax, effectuated by a compliant Board of Water Commissioners that jacked up water rates for the sole purpose of the illegal transfer of funds to City Hall. After both practices were sequentially shot down by courts, we now have a ballot measure which once again explicitly authorizes the illegal transfer of “surplus” funds from the water utility to the City Hall general fund

It is, quite simply, the exact same scam the city attempted before, which it tried to provide cover for by means of a previous charter amendment, Measure M (2018), passed in part with the very same type of illegal taxpayer funded mailers. That Measure M utility transfer tax was found unconstitutional in court (a Prop. 218 violation, essentially an illegal work around to skirt Prop. 13s taxpayer protections) and thrown out.

The city then spent even more of our tax dollars on enormous outside counsel legal fees, trying to appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court. It lost its appeals at every level.

The key to Measure BB – crucially, of course, missing from this city mailer summary – is the language in Section 1407(5) of its proposed text: “To transfer to the general fund of the city any funds in the Gas Fund, the Water Fund and/or the Sewer Fund that are determined by the commission to be unnecessary to meet the obligations described in subsections (1), (2), (3) or (4) above; provided that the maximum transfer does not exceed 12% of the annual gross revenues of the gas facilities, water works and sewer system, respectively...”

That language is essentially an enormous middle finger to the State Superior Court, State Court of Appeals and State Supreme Court, as well as to all the ratepayers of the City of Long Beach, directly putting back into the City Charter the very language (even with the same perfunctory 12% cap) from Measure M which the courts threw out.

Except this time, the illegal transfer tax reaches even further into Gas and Sewer ratepayer dollars (!), now conveniently under the same regulatory umbrella as part of this new, more “efficient” general utilities commission (which would replace our current, quasi-independent – but not really – Board of Water Commissioners).

Not only is none of this discussed in the mailer, this wasn’t even discussed before the City Council when the amendment was voted on (it would be tough to ask council members to vote on the continuation of utterly illegal municipal scofflaw impunity, right in the face of any sense of rule of law, whatsoever, so city staff just, well, didn’t).

What was discussed at council and what is in the mailer summary is a pathetically superficial claim that consolidating operations will “yield operational efficiencies” and save us all money.

That claim is almost certainly spurious, but you’d have to do your own digging to know that. It’s based on a “study” that was commissioned a couple years ago, that makes such a claim with figures in a table, nearly at the end of its 12 pages. But those dozen thin pages are nothing more than another tendentious, vapidly written cheerleading memo for the foreordained goal of consolidation. Just where you would expect to see a detailed study backing up the claim, you find that the “report” just concludes.

The reason for that is likely that the “efficiencies” claim holds little to no water. Most operations between the city’s water, gas and sewer utilities, which one could consolidate, already were consolidated, years ago.

Furthermore, so as not to upset any city employee unions, the added claim is made that these efficiencies will produce immediate major savings despite the fact that not a single employee will be let go. So, we’re supposedly saving money from not duplicating work between utility departments, yet the workers supposedly duplicating such work don’t have to worry the slightest bit about losing their supposedly duplicative jobs. The whole thing is an insulting logical mess, except when it comes to the logic of City Hall tax-/ratepayer graft, of course.

The late leader of the Long Beach Taxpayers Association, Tom Stout, a co-founder of my community activist network, the Long Beach Reform Coalition, must be spinning in his grave. Tom was the greatest. He fought hard against Measure M and probably helped narrow its margin of passage by educating so many voters, laboriously one by one, in front of grocery stores, passing out flyers and putting up yard signs.

But he wouldn’t be surprised one bit that Long Beach is still laying to its hardworking residents and doing it quite literally on taxpayer funded paper they themselves are illegally being forced to pay for.

For all the above reasons, the city’s “informational” mailer on the local ballot measures is nothing more than a thinly veiled campaign mailer, which not only makes it illegal itself, it provides yet one more reason to vote “Hell NO” on all these city ballot measures, right across the board.

Ian Patton is a candidate for Long Beach Council District 5 in response to a request made by the Beachcomber to the mayor, all sitting council members and all candidates for mayor and council seats in the upcoming Nov. 9 election based upon a questioned expenditure of $97,000 by the city manager to produce and mail an “Important Voter “information only” brochure in addition to the “Official Sample Ballot” already produced by the County of Los Angeles that provides Impartial Analysis, Argument in Favor, Rebuttal to Argument in Favor, Argument Against and Rebuttal to Argument Against Long Beach Measures LBC, LBU, E and BB.

Details related to the $97,000 expenditure and responses – or failure to respond – by other office holders and candidates are reported in the associated Beachcomber article titled City Squanders $99,917 on “Information Only” Brochure.

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Comments

The city of Long Beach is a criminal organization.

This needs to be compulsory reading by every citizen. I'm gonna post a link to Nextdoor and see if it helps.
Thanks Ian for venting in such a masterful manner.

Thank you and the Beachcomber for filling in the blanks on these propositions.
Does the LB Reform Coalition have a YouTube or other social media outlet that will help get the word out on such issues?

Don’t we have a city auditor who is supposed to expose such egregious acts by city government?

Vote Suzie Price law and order candidate

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