Making an appeal for a repeal

Alex Doty • Feb 5, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Changes to Michigan’s election law still draw scrutiny from local public officials who say the measure restricts their ability to communicate with voters.

Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb said she isn’t sure what state lawmakers tried to accomplish with the new rules.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “The language is so vague that it is a prohibition of free speech, because if you don’t really understand when and if you’re violating the law, it’s very difficult to know when and if you’ve violated the law.”

The restrictions are the result of Public Act 269, which includes provisions that prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars for mass communications pertaining to local ballot questions 60 days before an election.

The act — then called Senate Bill 571 — was passed by the state Legislature in a late-night session in December 2015. It included the newly inserted language that includes a 60-day window before an election where public bodies could not mass-distribute information regarding a ballot proposal.

“Anytime you have to do late-night legislation behind the walls — as our legislators do lately — is bad business,“ Grand Haven City Councilman Mike Fritz said. ”It seems like our legislators in Lansing have been doing an awful lot of that lately and taking advantage of us. ... This is another instance of their late-night charades.“

SB 571 was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in early January. Snyder then asked lawmakers to work on follow-up legislation to clarify that the law didn't prohibit things like the expression of personal views by a public official.

McCaleb said anything city officials or council members do to distribute information to voters could be seen as a use of taxpayer dollars. The mayor said she’s talked with some state lawmakers about the new law, and they told her that it is an overreaction by communities.

“I totally disagree that this is nothing to worry about,” McCaleb said. ”... When you have something before the public and want to educate the public, I don’t know how you do that. We know we can’t say ’vote for this,’ or ’vote for that,’ but we have to give out information. Who defines when you give out information and if you’ve advocated for your position? I do think this is something very important that needs to be undone.“

Grand Haven City Council recently passed a resolution that urges state lawmakers to repeal the part of Public Act 269 that deals with the so-called ”gag order.“

“We don’t have anything on the ballot immediately in the City of Grand Haven, so we could look at it and say ’no harm, no foul,’ they’ve got time to fix it,” City Manager Pat McGinnis said. ”But our county has a very important item on (the upcoming) ballot — a mental health millage question — and our Harbor Transit has a very important item on the ballot in the township.“

Both the Ottawa County and Grand Haven Township ballot proposals are on the March 8 presidential primary ballot.

“Our Harbor Transit administration is doing nothing because they’re not sure they’d be violating the law,” McGinnis said. “With the risk of a $20,000 fine, they aren’t saying a word. The county has taken a very rigid approach and said, ’The law says we can’t speak on it.’ Their attorney said don’t say a word, so they’re quite literally toeing the line and not saying anything.”

McGinnis thinks the law could be harmful to local public services.

“They (township and county officials) just want to explain how much and what it would pay for,” he added. “They don’t want to say vote ’yes’ or vote ’no.’ They just want to answer those very simple questions.”

Councilman Fritz, who also serves as chairman of the Northwest Ottawa Recreation Authority, noted that the law could impact the authority’s effort to place a millage on the ballot this fall for a recreation facility.

“With a gag order, how do you present yourself to the public?” Fritz posed. “It’s very difficult, when you have a gag order, to move forward.”

Change on the horizon?

A group of Michigan lawmakers have advanced a measure intended to address criticism that a new law stops public officials from informing voters about ballot proposals.

The House Elections Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would allow public officials to distribute "factual" and "strictly neutral" information about ballot proposals, including the ballot language and the date of the election, regardless of how close it is to that election.

The measure now moves to the House floor for debate or possible revision.

"I want to make sure that we are not allowing for anything other than facts and neutral information at the expense of the taxpayers," said its sponsor, Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, on Wednesday.

Lyons said her original intent was to stop public bodies from providing biased information at the expense of taxpayers, a point that Snyder echoed in a letter last month, stating that it's intended "only to prohibit the use of targeted, advertisement-style mass communications that are reasonably interpreted as an attempt to influence the electorate using taxpayer dollars."

The new bill is supposed to clarify that intent. But critics — including state reps. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor — say the bill is too vague and could lead to future lawsuits. Irwin voted against moving the bill to the House floor; Hoadley didn't vote.

"My trouble with this is, I don't really know what this means," Irwin said during the committee meeting. "Some people read it and think one thing, some people read it and think another thing, and that's always bad for the law," he said after the committee adjourned.

The Michigan Municipal League says the best way to clarify the law is to simply repeal it.

"Michigan already has a law on the books banning local governments and school districts from using public resources to advocate for or against a ballot measure," said Chris Hackbarth, the group's director of state affairs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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