Jim Merritt’s campaign is fuming over an apparently illegal direct-mail political advertisement that showed up in the mailboxes of Northeast Tacoma homes today.
“This is one of the rottenest hit pieces I’ve ever seen,” said Merritt campaign manager Ronnie Bush.
I just got off the phone with Marilyn Strickland, who said she knew nothing about the ad and that it didn’t come from her campaign.
The mailer claims that because Merritt has already publicly stated his position against a controversial housing development planned for the North Shore golf course, he won’t be able to cast a vote on the issue if he’s elected.
“If Jim Merritt is Mayor, the developer will challenge his `objectivity’ and Mr. Merritt will be removed from the hearing,” the mailer states. “He’ll lose his voice, and his vote.
“Why? Because Mr. Merritt keeps stating his opinion, and so he’ll be considered `prejudiced’ when the Council hears the case.”
The ad cites the “appearance of fairness doctrine” as the governing law on the issue. The law precludes members of decision-making bodies from publicly staking a position on land use decisions before such issues are officially considered.
The development, which has been challenged by a citizens’ group representing hundreds or Northeast Tacoma residents, is now before a city hearing examiner. Ultimately, the hearing examiner’s decision will go before the city council.
Bush claims that she’s checked with an attorney, who has told her that the mailer’s claims are false — Merritt could vote on the issue. A relevant part of state law appears to back up her claim (as does Strickland herself).
“It’s totally untrue,” Bush said. “Jim Merritt has gone to bat for these residents, and to undercut what he’s done on the Friday before an election is despicable.”
I’ve got a call out to an attorney just to be sure, but according to the Revised Code of Washington, the mailer appears to be wrong. While members already on a council may be barred from staking a public opinion, the same doesn’t appear to hold true for candidates campaigning for office.
Specifially, the relevant part of the RCW states:
while campaigning for public office … no public discussion or expression of an opinion by a person subsequently elected to a public office, on any pending or proposed quasi-judicial actions, shall be a violation of the appearance of fairness doctrine.
In addition, although the mailer notes in fine print that it is an independent expenditure not endorsed by any candidate, it does not identify what person or organization is responsible for distributing it.
And that’s illegal, said Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.
“First of all, it’s supposed to say who paid for it,” Anderson said. “It’s not sufficient just to have that disclaimer.”
Anderson added that such independent expenditures must be reported on a specific report to the PDC within 24 hours from when such an ad appears. So far, no such report claiming responsibility for the ad has been filed, the PDC’s website shows. In this case, because the ad came out on a Friday, the group or person responsible for it has until Monday to file the proper report, Anderson said.
“If you don’t see anyone’s name and address claiming to be a sponsor, then it’s not in compliance with our political advertising laws,” said Anderson.
She added if no one actually files a report about the ad, the PDC won’t know who’s responsible for it, and likely wouldn’t be able to take any action.
In a phone call with Strickland a few minutes ago, she said she absolutely wasn’t responsible for the ad and doesn’t know who was.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” she said. “It didn’t come from my campaign. That’s absolutely the truth.”
Strickland added “in many ways, I don’t appreciate things that are sent out without (the campaign) being told first.”
Strickland said she knows that Merritt is not subject to the “appearance of fairness doctrine” because he does not currently hold office.
“I know for a fact that he’s a candidate, so he’s not bound by the same law that I am now,” she said.
The North Shore development has become a hotly contested campaign issue in the waning days before Election Day. Strickland has not given a position on where she stands on the matter, appropriately citing the `appearance of fairness doctrine’ in her role as a current council member. Merritt, meanwhile, has publicly opposed the development, saying it would be a “travesty” to build over the last big pieces of open space in the Northeast.
In a recent profile I wrote of the candidates, Merritt claimed he believes he lost an endorsement from the Master Builders Association to Strickland because he publicly opposed the project.
But members of the citizens’ group opposing the development have subsequently supported Merritt, I wrote, which created a flap among Strickland’s campaign. A Strickland fundraiser prompted an attorney for the opposition group to write a letter to the TNT clarifying that the group doesn’t officially endorse any candidate, which I wrote about here.
The sponsor-less mailer that came out today goes on to ask recipients, `Why muzzle our voice,’ and urges them to “Vote for Strickland to protect Northeast.”
In the return address of the simple black-and-white mailer on glossy stock, appears only the words “Don’t Muzzle the Mayor.”
It’s unclear how many homes received the mailer.