There’s been an unusual twist in the complaint against Albany City Manager Wes Hare over his alleged electioneering: A private citizen paid Hare’s $75 civil penalty or fine.
From the standpoint of common sense, the allegation is baloney even though an administrative law judge for the state Elections Division has upheld it. And the latest episode shows again that this case is about a principle and NOT about the money.
The Elections Division of the Oregon secretary of state asserts that Hare violated elections law by reminding the public in a press release last fall that voting was under way, and would soon end, on a $20.3 million bond issue for a new police department and downtown fire station. The problem was that his statement did not reiterate the estimated tax rate needed to pay off the bonds, as required by a state manual on how non-elected public employees can avoid violating the law against campaigning on the public’s dime.
The manual goes beyond the state law, which merely and sensibly says officials must avoid using public resources to advocate for or against anything on the ballot.
Hare is fighting the case and has not paid the $75 penalty. But Albany resident Karl Bridenbeck, who lives on Fir Oaks Place S.W., attempted to pay it by sending the state a check for that amount. (I could not reach him late Friday on why he had done that.)
On Thursday, though, Alana Cox of the Elections Division sent Bridenbeck this response: “We contacted Mr. Hare’s attorney, and he requested that we return the check to you.” The letter to Bridenbeck doesn’t say whether his check was included in the envelope, but presumably it was.
Meanwhile, on the legal front, City Attorney Jim Delapoer, directed by the city council to contest the dubious charge, is seeking judicial review. Delapoer is handling the legal work at his own expense, but on Sept. 10 the council agreed to pay the $373 filing fee to get the case into court.
The council is pursuing the case because, on behalf of citizens and local governments everywhere in Oregon, it wants to make this point: If public employees can be fined for making, in good faith, neutral statements of fact about election issues, the public is deprived of a crucial source of information. Besides that, whatever happened to free speech? (hh)