The Arizona Attorney General continues its inquiry into El Mirage and allegations that city officials used city resources to influence the outcome of an $8.5 million bond election on November 8.
The bond passed with a mere three-vote margin.
El Mirage provided some rather interesting responses to questions posed by the AG's office.
One issue raised in the inquiry, for instance, is El Mirage changing city policy to allow employees to actively participate in local elections, a practice prohibited by the city.
In his response, City Attorney Robert Hall, the probate attorney living and working in New Mexico that El Mirage hired to represent the city, told the AG's Office that union reps for the city's Fire Department wanted to get involved in the city election.
Hall says he reviewed the city's rules and writes this to the AG:
"Upon review, I concluded that the existing Personnel Policy, when considered in concert with State law, Federal law and previous City Attorney memos, already afforded members of employee groups defined guidelines to participate in the Bond Election."
Um ... if they could already participate in the bond election, which is clearly a city election, why did the city council have to vote to change the rules?
An e-mail from Rick Flaaen, the former city attorney that Hall includes in his response to the AG's Office is pretty clear on employees participation in local elections.
Hall claims that "one clause in the Personnel Manual was changed to clarify the term "other group" and that the allegation that "this action somehow rises to the level of lifting restrictions is not supported by fact."
Really? No restrictions were lifted so employees could politically engage in local elections?
Judge for yourself.
Here is the policy, in part, before it was amended (emphasis ours): "An employee shall not engage in political activity in any City of El Mirage election, except to sign a petition, cast a vote or express a private personal opinion. Employees are free to participate actively in political campaigns for non City of El Mirage elections during non-working hours."
Now, the policy after the city change: An employee shall not engage in political activity in any City of El Mirage election, other than to sign a petition, cast a vote or express a private personal opinion. The one exception is that employees are free to participate actively in political campaigns for the City of El Mirage elections during non-working hours provided they are affiliated with a "lawful" group (political action group, home owner groups, fraternal organizations, veterans groups, police associations, fire associations, etc.) that conducts itself in a lawful manner."
Read the newly adopted policy on employees engaging in political activity (the city underlined additions to the policy).
In other portions of the Attorney General's inquiry, city officials are questioned about using a city newspaper to promote the passage of the bond. There were several opinion pieces written by Mayor Lana Mook touting the benefits of the bond. The city publication did not allow for differing opinions -- only those that highlighted the benefits.
In their reply, city officials minimize the city's connection to the newspaper, saying only that newspaper is published and printed by Pueblo Publishing in Glendale. They include a letter from the general manager of the company reiterating that point.
But the letter from William E. Toops, Pueblo's GM, also notes that El Mirage pays to have the newspaper mailed to every address in the city. That costs El Mirage taxpayers about $2,200 a month, the company tells New Times.
And, El Mirage fails to mention in its AG response that city employees are responsible for the content -- other than ads -- of the newspaper. Staff time goes into collecting information, writing articles and proofreading the publication; those employees and their salaries are also part of the city's resources.
Hall, in his letter to the AG, complains that the individuals who made the allegations against the city are doing so for the "sole purpose of discrediting six of the seven City Council members and the Administration" and that the "complainants have assisted in mounting a number of collateral attack..."
While Hall moans about the political "attacks" that El Mirage officials had to endure during the campaign, obviously, private residents can support or oppose whatever political measure they want -- certainly no public tax dollars are being expended by their efforts.
A city, on the other hand, can use its purchasing power to punish a local business owner for not supporting the bond, its ability to change laws to allow employee groups to actively get involved in supporting the local bond election, its financial and personnel resources to mail a positive-only message about the bond to every business and household in the city -- without allowing opponents equal time.
A city has a clear and unfair advantage in an election when it uses public resources to persuade the electorate, and that's exactly why those actions are prohibited by state law.
And that is the question now before the Attorney General's Office: Did El Mirage officials violate state law by using city resources to push the $8.5 million bond election to victory?
The investigation is ongoing.
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