City officials fined over press release

Albany City Manager Wes Hare said Thursday he’ll appeal a $75 fine levied by the secretary of state’s office over an October 2013 press release regarding a bond election that was in progress.

Hare also said he’s already written a letter asking the state to rescind a similar penalty assessed against Marilyn Smith, the city’s public information officer.

“She was only acting in a clerical capacity,” Hare said.

Hare and Smith were the only city employees fined over the release, which was determined by the state not to have been impartial.

 Under Oregon law, elected officials such as city councilors are allowed to express opinions on elections affecting the taxing entity they represent; non-elected staffers in the course of their work are not.

The six-sentence release, dated Oct. 22, noted that the City Council had voted unanimously to hold public meetings regarding design and construction proposals for new police and fire facilities, and that Police Chief Mario Lattanzio and Fire Chief John Bradner should pick members of separate panels to review proposals for each facility.

The release’s last paragraph read, “Voting is underway on a 20-year general obligation bond measure that would provide $20.3 million to be used to replace both Albany Fire Station 11 and the Albany Police Department building. The election ends Nov. 5, 2013.”

The state was responding to a complaint filed by Albany resident Gordon L. Shadle, an opponent of the bond measure, which was defeated. It found the release constituted “advocacy,” a violation of electioneering law, because it did not spell out the cost of the bond measure to the individual taxpayer.

The secretary of state’s office sent notices of proposed civil penalties to Hare and Smith that were dated Feb. 19. Each has 20 days to appeal.

“The news release simply announced the council’s creation of an advisory group that subsequently became the group headed by Frank Morse and Dave Burright,” Hare said, referring to the city’s independent public safety facilities advisory committee, which began meeting in January.

“I’m not overly concerned about the fine, but I think the decision makes it nearly impossible for employees to determine what is advocacy and what is not. The only real safe harbor is to send every piece of correspondence that might conceivably be viewed as advocacy to the secretary of state’s office for review.  If, for example, someone sends me an e-mail request asking the amount of a bond measure, I can apparently be fined for not including a cents-per-thousand calculation.”

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