Government officials need to stop using our own money — yours and mine — to convince us to raise our taxes. It’s endemic. It’s improper. And it’s getting worse.
Meridian residents recently received their city utility bills, along with a newsletter from the mayor, who sang the praises of the tax-hike proposals from the Meridian Library District and Western Ada Recreation District.
Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd defended her pro-tax-hike writings — the entire city newsletter was dedicated to the tax hikes — as merely that of a city leader who writes about everything impacting the area.
“This is about our community,” she told me. Mayor de Weerd added that she writes about other issues of local significance.
Maybe de Weerd is sincere when tells me she believes she’s doing the right thing. But, such government meddling in bond elections has been admonished by our courts — in other words, the interference could be viewed as illegal. In 2005, a unanimous state Supreme Court chided the Greater Boise Auditorium District for taking sides in elections; the justices concluded that “every court which has addressed the issue to date has found the use of public funds for partisan campaign purposes improper, either on the ground that such use was not explicitly authorized or on the broader ground that such expenditures are never appropriate.”
In Meridian, the specter of election impropriety runs deeper: The mayor’s chief of staff, Robert Simison, is one of three members of the nonprofit board that is leading the campaign in support of a $20 million bond that would build two pools. If passed, the bond would essentially be a taxpayer-funded gift for the private YMCA organization.
When asked about her chief of staff’s role on the board of the group pushing for the bond, de Weerd said, “I don’t know that I was aware he’s on the board. I know he’s involved.” Simison did not return my call seeking comment.
“As far as I’m concerned he can get involved in any activity he and his family is inclined to,” de Weerd said of Simison.
Whether he can is a debatable point. Whether he should isn’t. As a high-ranking city government employee, Simison’s involvement runs the risk of appearing as if the swimming-pool bond is being orchestrated from city hall.
Simultaneously, the Meridian Library District has a marketing campaign that could be about promoting the good work of the library district. But, a strong case could be made that the marketing is intended to boost support for the library and, in turn, its own public-debt ballot issue.
Perhaps Meridian city officials are merely trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, maybe they’re trying to game the system. Either way, intent doesn’t matter, the deed does. The state Supreme Court had it right in 2005 when it concluded, “A principal danger feared by our country’s founders lay in the possibility that the holders of governmental authority would use official power improperly to perpetuate themselves, or their allies, in office; the selective use of public funds in election campaigns, of course, raises the specter of just such an improper distortion of the democratic electoral process.”
Whether that’s intentionally what’s occurring in Meridian, it’s easy to conclude that it looks that way. If the bonds on the November ballot are so good, they ought to be able to pass on their own, without using unethical — and I dare say, illegal — tactics to get the job done.