It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing, and the principle is worth fighting for, the Albany City Council decided Wednesday. On Monday, the council had agreed that each of its seven members would send the Oregon secretary of state a $10.72 check to cover a $75 civil penalty imposed on City Manager Wes Hare over an alleged election law violation. But last night they changed their mind and unanimously voted to contest the finding as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
The initiative to rescind Monday’s decision and fight the charge came from Councilor Floyd Collins. He had talked with City Attorney Jim Delapoer, who earlier said the case might cost $5,000 to $20,000 but since had offered to handle it for no additional fees because of its importance to the city and the public.
The secretary of state’s Elections Division, acting on a complaint from Albany resident Gordon Shadle, had found a violation of the law against electioneering by public employees. The state has declared that, to avoid advocacy, any public employee’s mention of a bond issue must be accompanied by its property tax cost in dollars and cents per $1,000 of assessed value. When Hare issued a press release announcing a council action on then-proposed police and fire building projects in October, the statement explained the projects were the subject of a bond election that would end Nov. 5 without also stating the expected tax rate.
The omission violated what the state says in a manual on the subject, but no reasonable reader would detect actual advocacy in stating the date when an election ends. The state law is intended to prevent public money from being spent to pressure voters one way or another, and also to protect employees from being badgered by their bosses to work for or against certain election outcomes.
Collins, other councilors and Delapoer made it plain they would not contest the charge as a favor to Hare — who had already planned to pay the penalty — and the amount was not the issue. The issue is that the state’s administrative rules go far beyond the intent of the law against influencing elections with public money. The regulations in fact may stifle the availability of facts the public should have when deciding ballot measures. If public workers can be fined for saying when an election ends, they could be fined — and, worse, have their reputations harmed — for saying just about anything.
The council passed a resolution directing Delapoer to contest the state’s allegation and take the case all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court if necessary. Delapoer could not predict the outcome but said that no matter what, the eventual ruling should bring “more certainty than we have now.” (hh)