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Fruitland mom on city election interference: “It saddens me”

Fruitland mom on city election interference: “It saddens me”

Dustin Hurst
February 28, 2017
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February 28, 2017

Stay-at-home mom Rachel Lindsey told Idaho lawmakers Monday she was less than thrilled when her city used taxpayer funds last fall to print and mail fliers to promote a bond plan.

“Paying taxes is never fun, but I am genuinely grateful for the services I receive in return for my tax dollar,” Lindsey told the House State Affairs Committee.

“However, I am not grateful when I see my tax dollars being spent on items like these [fliers],” she added. “It saddens me.”

Lindsey, who has four kids, lives in Fruitland. After she received two glossy mailers and a door-hanger, she decided to investigate who paid for the advertisements. To her dismay, Fruitland’s city clerk confirmed that Lindsey’s tax dollars, along with those paid by her friends and neighbors in town, covered the the printing and mailing costs.

She pressed Fruitland city leaders for equal funding to print and distribute her own informational mailers, but city officials rebuffed her. That, she said Monday, gave the city a distinct public relations advantage.

“The scales were clearly tipped in one direction, and they’d been tipped unfairly using taxpayer money,” Lindsey said. “It wasn’t right and it clearly wasn’t fair.”

A public records request later revealed Fruitland spent more than $16,000 to promote its bond last fall, including more than $11,000 to hire a consulting firm to guide the marketing campaign.

Lindsey wasn’t the only watchdog spurred to action by government abuse of taxpayer money. Michael Law of Kuna told committee members his school district’s misuse of public funds spurred him to attend board meetings and, eventually, run for a spot on that panel.

The Kuna School District, he said, used robocalls in prior years to promote bond efforts. This year it has produced a handful of promotional videos to persuade voters to support a bond on the March election ballot.

Law, who finished one term on the school board last July, offered a unique metaphor for government using tax dollars to sell ideas with which taxpayers may not agree: “It’s like paying a burglar to come rob you.”

Hubert Osbourne, a retired dairyman who resides in Nampa, told the panel he took offense when the College of Western Idaho spent $370,000 last year to promote a proposed $180 million bond.

“I think $370,000 is over the top and unacceptable,” he told the panel.

The three hope Meridian Republican Rep. Jason Monks’ House Bill 189 can stop governments from interfering in elections. Monks, who sits on the House State Affairs Committee, told his colleagues he thinks it inappropriate for government use its resources and advantages to sway voters.

Monks bill would still allow governments to provide factual election information to voters, but would block them from promoting one side of an issue over another. The bill would fine officials who violate the law $1,000, plus allow aggrieved constituents an avenue to contest elections in which they allege misuse of public funds to sway voters.

Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum spoke in favor of the legislation. Birnbaum, who cited several examples of governments using their power to promote bonds, told the panel the legislation would help governments focus on core duties.

“Taxpayers, through their cities, counties and schools, hire police to catch bad guys, teachers to teach and mayors to administer city business,” Birnbaum said. “Taxpayers don’t hire these folks to manipulate elections.”

Ada County Clerk Chris Rich, spoke against the plan Monday, and wondered if it would restrain his office from educating voters ahead of elections.

The ACLU of Idaho also opposed the measure, and said it would have “a chilling effect” on public officials’ speech.

The committee passed the bill Tuesday, when Monday’s meeting ran up against time constraints, on a party-line vote, with Democrats opposed. The measure will head to the House’s amending order for slight changes, including a restriction on how much time an aggrieved party can contest an election.

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