Despite outcry, Fresno will spend $600k on ballot campaigns. Is it a conflict of interest?

Brianna Vaccari/bvaccari@fresnobee.com

It took a couple tries, but the Fresno City Council on Thursday voted to spend $600,000 on voter education materials for two November ballot measures, despite criticism from a coalition of community organizations.

The city will pay a consultant $450,000 to produce voter education materials for Measure M, a Fresno city proposed sales tax that would raise money for veterans facilities and services. Measure M 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 city also will pay an advertising firm $150,000 to produce materials for Measure C, a countywide proposed $7 billion, 30-year transportation spending plan renewal.

Funding the Measure C educational materials is what drew criticism from many members of the No on Measure C Committee. They argued it was unlikely the education materials would be impartial and ultimately would amount to using taxpayer money for campaign materials, which is illegal. Many community members spoke during public comment in opposition to the agenda item.

City officials disagreed and said the city attorney’s office reviewed the spending proposal to make sure no laws would be broken.

Before Thursday’s vote, City Manager Georgeanne White said she personally would oversee the contracts to ensure all laws are followed. The council’s ultimate approval hinged on the condition that all materials must be reviewed by the city attorney’s office before they are distributed.

“I’m giving my commitment on this dais that we will follow the direction that no materials will be going out without the city attorney having reviewed them,” White said. “So we will be very cautious. We’re very clear on not only what the government code says and what the FPPC guidance says. …We all want to stay out of trouble.”

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 Committee argues that the plan does not do enough to build new sidewalks, improve public transit or fight climate change.

The committee called Thursday’s action “a violation of public trust, plain and simple.”

“Regardless of how these funds are labeled, this close to an election, there is a clear conflict of interest in spending public funds on advancing ballot measures,” the committee said in a statement after the vote. “The Fresno City Council’s actions confirm that we cannot trust politicians with the public’s money. Why would we trust them with $7 billion more? Time and time again, politicians use our hard earned money as their own personal political slush fund, while leaving us with broken roads and broken promises.”

On Thursday before the vote, the city council split the agenda item so that they’d vote separately to pay for each ballot measure’s voter education materials. The council unanimously approved paying for the materials for Measure M. Councilmember Esmeralda Soria was absent.

It took three votes to approve the spending for Measure C.

The first vote failed because it lacked four votes in favor.

Councilmember Miguel Arias said he supported the Measure M spending because there were no campaign committees for or against it. Measure C does have committees campaigning for and against it. Plus, the contractor the city was poised to vote on already created promotional materials related to Measure C that cast the ballot measure in a positive light, he said.

“I’m not willing to be served up to the district attorney or anyone else who’s going to be responsible for investigating complaints of us crossing the line,” Arias said. “I’m going to be ‘no’ because I don’t believe that this has the ability and controls to remain a factual information initiative, and it puts us as a city at significant risk.”

Karbassi said he was determined to find a way to pass the item.

“This is too important,” Karbassi said. “We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.”

The council voted in favor to reconsider the item.

Bredefeld floated the idea of paying for the materials from a different funding source, such as the councilmember’s own district budgets. The council eventually settled on using money from the city’s pre-existing budget for outreach services.

In the end, the council lowered the dollar amount for the contract from $250,000 to $150,000. The item passed on a 4-1 vote. Councilmember Arias cast the lone no vote, and again Esparza abstained.