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USE TAX PITCHES: Prompt ethics complaint against CoMo city manager

"The City of Columbia needs this revenue"

COLUMBIA, Mo  11/4/17 (Op Ed) -- Columbia city manager Mike Matthes' publicly-funded pitches for Proposition 1 -- a "use tax" on the ballot Tuesday -- prompted me to file a formal complaint against him and City Hall Friday with the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC).
 
The written and videotaped pitches violate a state law MEC enforces, RSMo 115.646, which prohibits spending public funds on advocacy regarding ballot measures or candidates. 

Privately-funded booster groups with names like "Citizens for Bigger Government" and "Columbians For Higher Taxes" normally promote ballot issues. 

But at least four formats -- City Hall's City Source Newsletter, mailed to thousands of Columbia residents; a City of Columbia Use Tax FAQ; a "Use Tax" website/video at Como.gov; and a video on the City Channel -- advocate for the tax. 

Campaign finance disclosures follow each pitch:  "Paid for by the City of Columbia, Missouri. Mike Matthes, City Manager."

The Columbia City Council, meanwhile, had no vote nor any publicly-disclosed input on Matthes' decision to promote the tax. 


Making the pitch

With language, opinions, and perspectives many Columbia residents would dispute, Matthes (photo) and Columbia-Boone County Public Health director Stephanie Browning explain "Why [the Use Tax] is important to Columbia residents."  

"The Use Tax levels the playing field for local businesses who are required to pay the local Sales Tax," Matthes writes on the website, newsletter, and FAQ. 

"With no local Use Tax in place, consumers have an incentive to purchase items from out-of-state vendors instead of buying locally.  This costs the city local jobs and tax revenue because millions of dollars are sent out of our state and local economy.

"The City of Columbia needs to maintain this revenue stream for vital City services such as: public safety (police and fire), roads, and sidewalks."

Browning advocates for the tax in a video on the city's website and the publicly-funded City Channel

"The use tax levels the playing field," she reiterates.  "The city of Columbia needs to maintain this revenue stream for vital city services." 

Information only

Political subdivisions -- including cities -- may only offer information about ballot issues.  City officials may also issue press releases and make public appearances for the same limited purpose -- information only.  

RSMo 115.646 prohibits "expenditures of public funds directly by any officer, employee or agent of any political subdivision to advocate, support, or oppose any ballot measure or candidate for public office."    
 
"The Commission has interpreted §115.646 to protect the public from the expenditure of public funds for or against a particular ballot issue, liberally construed to accomplish the greatest good," MEC director James Klahr wrote in a July 2017 white paper on the topic.  

The white paper examines about a dozen recent cases in which city, county, school district or other public officials used taxpayer funds to advocate for or against ballot measures. 

In 2016, ethics commissioners ruled against Hannibal city manager Jeff LaGarce for spending public funds on a brochure and newspaper ads regarding a use tax.  "The materials were found to support the Proposition by encouraging voters to favor it," Klahr wrote. 

In other publicly-funded advocacy cases, ethics commissioners ruled that language such as "Buying out-of-state hurts our economy"; and describing a tax increase as "a small price to pay for improved response items and overall safety for your family and the community" also violated the statute. 

Loosey-goosey

The MEC dismisses most complaints and may dismiss mine. But with every possible advantage already in their corners, city officials must be cautious about how they spend public money on ballot measure advocacy.  

City Hall's ethics have become so loosey-goosey under the Matthes Administration that almost anything goes now, including city government's assumption of the lobbying role booster groups used to play.   

This story was NOT "Paid for by the City of Columbia, Missouri.  Mike Matthes, City Manager."

-- Mike Martin

See "Why is this important to City of Columbia's residents?" at the following links:    

City Channel Use Tax pitch   


City Source Newsletter Use Tax Pitch

City of Columbia Use Tax FAQ with pitch
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