City of Fresno wants to spend taxpayer money on voter education. Critics say that’s illegal

Brianna Vaccari/bvaccari@fresnobee.com

A group of residents, advocates, carpenters and nonprofits on Wednesday called on the Fresno City Council to reject a proposal to spend $750,000 on voter education for ballot measures slated for the November election.

The group said that since many government officials were involved in getting Measure C and Measure M on the ballot, it’s unlikely the education materials will be unbiased. It’s more likely the materials will be similar to campaign literature, and it’s illegal to use government money for campaigns.

“Regardless of the merits of either tax, this is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money. These are sales tax initiatives to be voted on in November, and any campaigns for or against them can only be supported by private funds, according to state law. This is a clear violation of the public trust,” said Kay Bertken, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Fresno.

Measure C is a countywide proposed $7 billion, 30-year transportation spending plan renewal. Measure M is a Fresno city proposed sales tax that would raise money for veterans facilities and services. Measure V is proposed as a 0.125% sales tax, or one-eighth of a percent, on sales of taxable goods and services in the city.

The Fresno City Council on Thursday will consider an item that would provide a consulting firm $500,000 to create voter education materials for Measure M and $250,000 to the Jeffrey Scott Agency for materials on Measure C.

Wednesday’s group calling on the council to reject the item included the League of Women Voters; Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability; Faith in the Valley, Mothers Helping Mothers Central California; Friends of Calwa; and Nor Cal Carpenters Union and Carpenters Local 701.

“The sad thing is, it’s not that bureaucrats should be trying to educate us as citizens, but really it’s the other way around. It’s our place as citizens to be educating those who represent us politically,” said Rev. Simon Biasell, with Faith in the Valley. “Instead of spending money to try and persuade us how they think we should think, our job is to persuade them to think on our behalf and to act on our behalf.

“Any funding that is used to send out propaganda to get us to believe and think like bureaucrats or elected officials — that is backwards,” Biasell said. “The effort of our city council, the effort of our mayor should be about listening to the community, listening to the needs of the community, especially those who have been overlooked, who have been ignored, who have been planned against for years and years.”

Bertken and others pointed to campaign laws that prohibit government agencies from spending government money to support or oppose ballot measures or candidates.

City officials cited the same law and pointed out provisions that do allow public agencies to provide information about the possible effects of a ballot measures, with conditions.

“All expenditures for public education purposes presented to the council for consideration this Thursday have been vetted and approved by our city attorney’s office and abide by government code and laws,” said Councilmember Luis Chavez, a sponsor of Thursday’s agenda item and a proponent for Measure M.

Chavez called out Leadership Counsel for contributing $25,000 to the No on C effort, saying the nonprofit organization indirectly receives taxpayer money when it collects legal fees from government agencies.

“Lawsuits and settlements over the years have yielded the organization cash for their coffers that they can use to advance their political agenda, demonstrated by their contribution to a political initiative,” Chavez said.

Measure C was prepared by local political leaders, including Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer. Citing internal polls that show that Fresno County voters want, first and foremost, their neighborhood streets improved, the plan’s proponents want to spend the majority of Measure C’s revenue over the next 30 years to repave local roads.

The No on C coalition, which includes the carpenter union, Leadership Counsel, and former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, says that the plan does not do enough to build new sidewalks, improve public transit or fight climate change.

Both ballot measures require the support of 66% of Fresno County voters to pass.