The other day, I received a robo-call from Missoula Mayor John Engen urging me to vote for the Missoula County Public Schools bonds in the upcoming election. Knowing the mayor’s preference for big-government spending, I did not think much of it. Of course he would support ideas that enlarge the scope and power of government.
I was taken aback, however, to learn in the Oct. 22 Missoulian that the mayor’s advocacy had actually been funded by taxpayer dollars. After reading the news story, I went back to my smartphone, undeleted the mayor’s communication and listened again.
Here’s what the messages says: “Hello, this Mayor John Engen, and I’m calling you today as a resident of Missoula who supports our public schools and every child working hard to get a good education.” He then urges me, and explains how, to vote in the upcoming bond election. Mayor Engen concludes with: “Thank you for everything you do to support your children, and to ensure a positive future for your family – and our wonderful community.”
The message of the robo-call, in both tone and content, is clear and obvious: Mayor Engen is strongly in “support” of the MCPS bonds – and he wants me to join him. Again, no surprise and no big deal – until we learned who paid for it: Missoula County Public Schools.
There are several legal problems with the mayor’s robo-call. First, we now know it was paid for by MCPS. Under Montana’s public ethics statute, MCA 2-2-121(3)(b)(2), this is flatly illegal: “Public funds may not be expended for any form of commercial advertising in support of .. a bond issue or levy submitted to the electors.” Likewise, under the same law, MCPS may not “use public ... facilities, equipment, supplies ... or funds to solicit support for ... the passage of a ballot issue.”
Now there is a narrow exception to this law, if the communication “is properly incidental to another activity required or authorized by law, such as the function of an elected public officer ... in the normal course of duties.” But the fig leaf used here – instructions to electors on how to vote – is not applicable. The duty of MCPS is not to instruct people “how to vote.” Rather, that function resides with of county election officials. In short, the mayor’s robo-call was in violation of at least two provisions of Montana public ethics law.
In addition, Montana election law, MCA 13-35-225(1), requires that “all communications advocating the success ... of a ... ballot issue through any ... form of general political advertising must clearly and conspicuously include the attribution ‘paid for by’ followed by the name and address of the person who made or financed the expenditure for the communication.” The mayor’s message also plainly violated this requirement. Moreover, despite the statement of Gov. Steve Bullock’s political appointee, Commissioner of Political Practices Jon Motl, the COPP retains, under MCA 13-35-225(6), full and direct jurisdiction over this violation.
Admittedly, Mayor Engen is a prominent and vocal supporter of the governor and Motl. Still, these political alliances are less important than the fair enforcement of Montana election law. Politics notwithstanding, rather than dodge this issue for “lack of jurisdiction,” Motl should undertake an investigation. Most of all, like the rest of us, our public officials need to comply with Montana public ethics and election laws.