Opponents of the half-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects in San Luis Obispo County have filed a complaint alleging that the county, a regional transportation planning agency and the committee supporting the ballot measure have violated campaign reporting laws.
A complaint was filed Oct. 12 with the California Fair Political Practices Commission alleging the county and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, which proposed the sales tax increase for the ballot, violated the Political Reform Act in part by failing to report spending taxpayer money on promotional materials that advocated support for Measure J.
It alleges that the county and SLOCOG spent more than $225,000 in noncash contributions on salaries for employees and consultants who “participated in joint campaign appearances to advocate for the passage of Measure J, in coordination with the Yes on Measure J Committee” and on promotional materials without disclosing the expenses as campaign expenditures.
The complaint was filed by the Central Coast Taxpayers Association, which formed a committee to oppose the measure and wrote the ballot argument against it. The complaint was also filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has not taken a position on Measure J but is against the way it is being promoted by local government, Executive Director Kris Vosburgh said.
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San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal said the FPPC notified the county of the complaint and would let county officials know in about 14 days what action the agency would take.
“At this time, we are reviewing the complaint and will await further notification from the FPPC,” Neal wrote in an email.
There are a number of legal cases and a statute that provide direction on how public funds and the services of publicly funded employees can be used to provide information about Measure J, she added. The law makes a distinction between improper campaign expenditures and proper informational activities.
“It is generally accepted that a public agency may provide informational material and presentations to educate the public about a measure, but public agencies are prohibited from expending funds to campaign for or against a measure,” Neal wrote.
“Sometimes the line between informational and campaign activities is not clear and courts seek to consider different factors such as whether the entity employs a moderate tone and avoids argumentative statements,” she added. “Courts will consider style, tenor and timing of publications. As such, no hard and fast rule governs every case, and all facts and circumstances will be considered.”
FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said campaign-related complaints would be given priority, but he could not comment on any pending complaints or investigations. About two-thirds of investigations and cases conclude within about 180 days.
Measure J would add a half-cent to every dollar of an item purchased, raising the sales and use tax rates to 8 percent in the unincorporated areas of the county and 8.5 percent in Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo.
It would make San Luis Obispo County into a “self-help” county with a dedicated funding stream that can only be used on local transportation projects — as opposed to relying on state or federal dollars.
If approved by two-thirds of voters, the measure would generate an estimated $25 million a year over nine years, for a total of $225 million.
According to the complaint, a four-page glossy mailer and 21 pages of information included in the voter information pamphlet about Measure J are promotional and not informational only.
“Government should not be spending money to promote ballot measures, which is illegal,” Andrea Seastrand, president of the Central Coast Taxpayers Association, said in a news release about the complaint.
The complaint states the SLOCOG board approved spending $185,000 for a consultant in April. Staff reports and minutes for the April 6 board meeting show the board amended its consultant contract by $137,650 to facilitate educational presentations, staff events and a mailer about Measure J.
The committee against the measure has raised $940 this year, according to the most recent campaign filing statement.
Citizens for SLO County Self-Help Local Transportation, the committee formed in support of Measure J, raised $130,670 during the same time period.