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Ottawa County issues gag order on upcoming millage vote in face of new law

Caleb Whitmer/The Holland Sentinel • Jan 17, 2016 at 2:00 PM

Ottawa County has issued a gag order for its officials and employees on upcoming millage ballot proposals.

Fearing legal repercussions from campaign finance legislation recently made state law, the County Board of Commissioners recommended all civil servants and elected officials stay mum on local ballot questions — such as the Community Mental Health millage proposal, which Ottawa County voters will decide on in the March 8 primary.

“Until the law gets clarified, (Ottawa County officials) will not speak directly about the millage,” County Administrator Al Vanderberg said.

Normally, government officials are allowed to provide educational information on ballot questions, so long as it doesn’t attempt to sway the public one way or the other.

However, this new law, Public Act 269, restricts public employees and officials from using “public funds or resources” from issuing “a communication” relating to a local ballot question within 60 days of its vote.

While the language of Public Act 269 does include come caveats, its broad language has created worry among municipal officials around the state. Take the phrase “public funds or resources,” for instance — Vanderberg said there is question whether that applies to salaries.

“If a public official goes and speaks at a meeting, is that considered a use of public funds?” he posed.

Concern over such questions prompted Ottawa County’s legal counsel to recommend an official position of silence on ballot questions to the county board until the bill is clarified. There is enough gray area, County Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Baumann said, that silence is just safer.

The penalty to individuals found guilty of breaking the new rules includes a fine up to $1,000 or up to a year in prison. The penalty to institutions found guilty could mean a $20,000 fine or more.

“At this point, we have no comment on the millage issue,” Baumann said.

Vanderberg said he thinks the law will be clarified soon. However, it is bad timing for governments preparing for ballot question votes on the upcoming March 8 primary — such as Ottawa County’s Community Mental Health millage.

“(Public Act 269) is going to severely hamper our ability to provide the community with what I believe is important information about the millage,” said Lynne Doyle, director of the county’s Community Mental Health agency.”

Public education on the millage, Doyle said, will therefore be the prerogative of private organizations. A group called Friends of Community Mental Health was started just for that purpose.

Part of the frustration with this new law, Vanderberg said, is that public sector advocacy is already illegal. At the same time, the number of infractions compared to the number of municipalities in the state is tiny, he said.

If lawmakers wanted to crack down on government-sponsored campaigning, Vanderberg said, they should have just strengthened the penalties already in place, rather than create the new one with all its vagaries.

“Most people would say the existing law is working just fine,” Vanderberg said. “This situation is a solution in search of a problem.”

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