The city of Fraser, Michigan, appears to have violated state election law by allowing a city council member to post a plea on its website urging residents to vote yes on a 3-mill property tax increase styled as a public safety special assessment.
The proposal failed Nov. 7 by a 56-43 percent margin. There were 2,280 “no” votes to 1,730 “yes” votes.
On the city webpage that describes her as a council member, Kathy Blanke posted:
"Hello all Fraser Residents,
Next week we vote on Tuesday, November 7. Please vote yes for PA 33. Say YES to the future of Fraser. Say YES to continue our stellar Police, Fire, Ambulance, Paramedics and quick response time. Say YES to Recreation. Say YES to DPW services, Say YES to our City we love and want to keep in tact. Without the passage of this ballot - we will put Fraser in harms way."
According to state law:
"A public official may not use public resources to disseminate an opinion with express advocacy that would be considered a violation of the [Michigan Campaign Finance Act] such as mass email. A public body may not create and maintain links to web sites that expressly support of or oppose candidates or ballot questions if the body does so for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election.”
The state has defined “express advocacy” as literally saying “vote yes” or “vote for.”
Blanke and Fraser City Manager Wayne O’Neal didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Former state Rep. Leon Drolet, now chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office.
Although there have been many examples of schools and local governments electioneering for tax increases in recent years, the Michigan Secretary of State seldom fines municipalities for violating the law. The position of its elections bureau is that the law requires that it first try to work out an informal resolution to complaints.
“Elected officials in government violate the law far too often when it comes to promoting their interests using tax dollars,” Drolet said. “This is just one example and a blatant one.”
Drolet said few bother to file formal complaints with the state because there are seldom consequences to breaking the law. Drolet said the process can take months to be resolved.
The state rarely imposes fines — of $100 — for violations of the law. If it had passed, Fraser’s public safety millage would have generated $1.1 million in new revenue.
“The system is set up to incentivize public officials to violate the law,” Drolet said.
The Fraser proposal would have imposed an additional 3 mill levy on city property owners. A year ago Fraser voters defeated a similar proposal.
Tom Gantert writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential.