Back-Seat Driver

Sacramento transportation sales tax mailers stir questions

The city of Elk Grove paid to send this mailer to its residents. State law prohibits governments are not allowed to use public funds to advocate for a “yes” or “no” vote on ballot measures, but informational mailers are allowed.
The city of Elk Grove paid to send this mailer to its residents. State law prohibits governments are not allowed to use public funds to advocate for a “yes” or “no” vote on ballot measures, but informational mailers are allowed.

Several Sacramento County governments recently sent residents mailers about Measure B, the transportation sales tax proposal on the November ballot. Measure B opponents argue these mailers represent an improper use of public funds to try to sway the vote.

The law is clear that governments are not allowed to use public funds to advocate for a “yes” or “no” vote on ballot measures. But the statutes do allow them to educate the public on ballot issues as long as the city or county doesn’t “urge a particular result.”

“It can be a fuzzy line,” said Jim Priest, an election law attorney with Best Best & Krieger in Southern California. He advises his local government clients that put out mailers to keep them factual, with straightforward language, and not offer any hint of which way people should vote. That advice, he said, is based on state court rulings. Such “informational” mailers are common, he and several other election law attorneys said.

The materials we’ve seen from Sacramento County and Elk Grove look like campaign mailers. They use similar graphics and icons as the mailers the “Yes on Measure B” side is putting out. The mailers describe Measure B – a half-cent sales tax – and list the road fixes and transportation projects it would help pay for, but do not reference voting. One Elk Grove mailer is simply titled “Measure B Summary.”

To be clear, city and the county leaders really want the measure to pass. But Mike Penrose, Sacramento County’s transportation head, said the county ran its materials past its attorneys to stay on the correct side of the legal line. The point of the mailers, he said, is to “increase awareness and knowledge of an important measure in play in Sacramento County.”

Notably, state law also says “timing” should be taken into consideration when determining whether a government is engaged in advocacy or not. The code doesn’t specify what is meant by timing. The Sacramento mailers came out about a month before the vote. That could be read by some to suggest the mailers are an attempt to get a “yes” vote.

Stephen Kaufman, principal with the Kaufman Legal Group, a political law firm with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento, said it also can be seen as appropriate timing, because the last few weeks before an election is when voters are focused and want information about issues.

If governments send out a slew of mailers, say, in the last week or two before the Nov. 8 vote, Priest said that could be seen by a court as pushing for a particular result.

Sunrise Bridge flood

Bridges are supposed to keep us up out of the water. But busy Sunrise Bridge partially flooded recently in heavy rains. The outside lanes in each direction pooled, and cars tossed up giant rooster tail sprays, reader Cindy Engel reports. She wonders if the county is aware.

County officials say crews will be out on the bridge this week for their fall cleaning of the storm drain inlets. The early deluge just got a little ahead of them. Workers cleared debris last week on the Watt Avenue bridge and will clean Hazel Bridge later this week, maintenance manager Tim Jones said.

Sunrise has an older weep hole drainage system that isn’t as effective as the trough system on the Watt bridge. If experience holds, cleaning crews will find a bunch of litter – plastic bags, soda cups, water bottles – causing blockages, as well as built-up silt and gravel.

RT fares

Some light-rail riders recently found themselves standing in long lines waiting to buy tickets to return home after events let out at Golden 1 Center. When trains showed up, some just jumped aboard without a ticket rather than miss the train.

Sacramento Regional Transit officials will ask their board Monday to allow arena-bound riders to buy a round-trip ticket at their trip origination point before heading downtown, so they’ll have their return trip ticket in hand after events. The round-trip ticket would be $5.50.

Notably, not all RT vending machines have the technology to sell round-trip tickets. Only the agency’s 28 new Parkeon machines will do it. There is one of those at each light-rail station with a park-and-ride lot. As an alternative, the agency also has a smartphone app – RideSacRT – that allows riders to buy as many tickets at a time as they want, and store them on the phone for later use.

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