The Public Eye: Rocklin fined $2,000 for newsletter containing prohibited photos

06/15/2014 12:00 AM

06/16/2014 7:45 AM

Rocklin was fined $2,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission last week for blanketing households with a newsletter that contained photos of City Council members, a violation of the Political Reform Act.

The state considers such activities a prohibited form of campaigning with taxpayer funds that gives incumbents an unfair advantage.

City officials said the inaugural newsletter, Inside Rocklin, was a well-intentioned effort to keep citizens informed and that they were unaware of the state rules. The 28-page colorful publication contained city contact information, community event listings and articles about local businesses.

“Our staff was just unaware of that. It wasn’t done intentionally,” said Rocklin spokeswoman Karen Garner. “There’s no excuse for not knowing, but there’s a lot to know.”

Days after the newsletter was mailed out, the FPPC sent a violation letter to Mayor Scott Yuill.

“It was kind of a surprise,” Yuill said. “It’s frustrating – no council member was aware that a photo was going to be used.”

The mistake will cost taxpayers $2,000, as city officials said they will use public funds to pay the fine.

On Page 3, a message by the mayor touts Rocklin as a “thriving city of 60,000 residents consisting of a vibrant and historical downtown, friendly neighborhoods, unique shopping and strong businesses that offer diverse employment.” Yuill closes his letter by urging readers to “explore and enjoy all that Rocklin has to offer!” The same page features the presence of five (mostly) smiling faces from the City Council.

The newsletter distributed in April replaced a previous booklet sent out by the parks and recreations department. The city spent $19,340 to produce 30,000 copies of Inside Rocklin and sold $12,265 in advertising to offset the cost, according to Garner.

The Political Reform Act explicitly prohibits candidate mass mailings at public expense. Under FPPC regulations, a city mass mailer is illegal if it features a signature or photograph of an elected official and costs more than $50 in public funds to produce and design.

Bob Stern, who helped write the Political Reform Act in 1974 and served as general counsel for the FPPC, said the law is designed to limit the advantage of incumbents.

“When a mailer is sent out, it adds to their name recognition,” Stern said. “A challenger would love to have that mailing, with a picture and a name.”

In one instance from 2000, the city of Inglewood in Los Angeles County was fined $50,000 for sending out a magazine, Inglewood Today, over a period of three years featuring individual and group photographs of elected officials.

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga declined to comment on the Rocklin case, pending the final settlement. The agreement must still be approved by FPPC members at its next meeting June 19.

Besides mailing the publication, Rocklin officials uploaded the document to the city’s website and placed it in city offices. Those distribution points are legal and not covered by FPPC sanctions.

The mass mailing law stems from a 1988 voter-approved initiative, Proposition 73. The FPPC has implemented the law through stipulations and advice letters that have determined what is fair play.

Rocklin officials said they will use the violation to educate city staff. Multiple staff members, including Garner, were involved in the production and planning of the newsletter. Garner said no one will be disciplined as a result of what happened.

She defended the use of general fund money to pay the fine, saying the penalty was assessed on the city, not the council members.

“It was an honest mistake,” Garner said. “It won’t be repeated again.”

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