Sunnyvale city officials have been accused of spending taxpayer money on partisan mailers to promote a March 3 ballot measure that would establish six council districts and a directly elected mayor.
The allegations come from a coalition called No Directly Elected Sunnyvale Mayor, which favors seven districts and the current system of a council-appointed mayor. In a press release sent to news reporters last week, the group said mailers on Measure B that went out to residents this past month violated state law by crossing the line into advocacy.
California election law prohibits government agencies from spending taxpayer money on political campaigning. The No-on-B folks argue that the city’s hiring of TBWB Strategies—a firm whose website offers to help clients “package and pass a ballot measure to meet your needs”—indicates that it’s taken a position on the issue.
“It’s very important that our city governments remain unbiased and do not try to influence votes,” said Steve Scandalis, head of No Directly Elected Sunnyvale Mayor. “We hire them to provide services, not political advice.”
A public records request turned up invoices showing that Sunnyvale paid $8,000 for consulting services from TWBS and another $80,000 to send the resulting mailers to 62,000 addresses throughout the city.
Scandalis says the mailers include language supportive of Measure B by noting how it would protect the city from “potentially costly” California Voting Rights Act litigation and failing to mention that it would extend term limits.
The sequence of the mailers suggests an advocacy agenda, too, he added. The city sent out its Measure B literature over three weeks in January; the Yes-on-B campaign followed up by sending its own mailers.
“That gives the impression that the city is telling us to vote yes,” Scandalis said.
Then there’s the fact that TBWB has been embroiled in scandal over the same issue before. In 2019, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) launched a probe into claims that the San Francisco-based firm played a “major role” in coordinating between a transit tax measure and public entities that would benefit from it.
Sunnyvale officials flatly deny claims of wrongdoing.
“As you likely already know, it is well established that agencies may spend public funds to provide information to the public about the possible effects of a ballot measure on the activities, operations, or policies of the local agency,” Deputy City Manager Jaqui Guzman told San Jose Inside in an email. “The agency’s information must present relevant facts in an accurate, fair and impartial manner to aid voters in reaching an informed judgment regarding the ballot measure.”
The publicly funded Measure B mailers were developed under the watchful eye of legal counsel, she said, and were consistent with the city’s ongoing style of communications.
Scandalis said his allies on the No-on-B campaign have yet to decide whether to ask the FPPC investigate the allegations and that they’re exploring “what, if any, options may be available to remedy” the matter.
Just last week, a former of Santa Clara accused officials in Mission City of the same thing in an FPPC complaint. Similar claims have cropped up throughout California, particularly against public entities that stand to gain new revenue through tax hikes.
Government agencies often defend the use of political consultants to craft messaging about certain measures by arguing that the materials are educational because they don’t explicitly tell people how to vote. But, as noted by the California Attorney General’s Office, it’s not always clear where to draw the line.
In one of its opinions about bond measures, the office stated: “Courts have repeatedly noted the difficulty in drawing a bright line in distinguishing between what is a proper and an improper expenditure of public funds in connection with election activities.”