A flap over a county-funded newsletter turned into new legislation Tuesday as the Pierce County Council moved to tighten the rules on newsletters, brochures and other mass mailings during election season.
It’s now against the Ethics Code for an elected county official who’s running for office to use public money for such mailings between May 31 and Nov. 30 in an election year. The new rules also apply to e-mail.
But there are some exceptions.
The county auditor, for example, can mail out voter’s pamphlets and ballots. Ditto for the assessor-treasurer and tax statements.
The County Council unanimously approved the rules in an amendment to the Ethics Code on Tuesday afternoon, acting in part because of a controversy generated by a June newsletter mailed by Councilman Shawn Bunney, who is running for the Legislature. Here’s an image of the newsletter in question.
Previous council policy declared a mailing deadline of July 31, but that rule was written in 1998 – well before the state adopted the August primary system.
And it was contained only in what council members described as a “policy memo.”
The new rules are codified in the county Ethics Code, giving them more visibility and adding enforcement power.
“I think it gets the attention of everybody,” Council Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, said during an afternoon council study session.
Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puallup, championed the Ethics Code amendment and called it “good policy.”
The restrictions – and to whom they apply – are “clear, precise and open,” McDonald said before the vote. “So no one will ever have to wonder whether what we do is appropriate or not.”
Violating the mailing restriction “constitutes use of public facilities for the purpose of assisting or opposing a campaign,” the legislation says.
The Revised Code of Washington contains provisions for civil penalties, including the potential for thousands of dollars in fines.
In addition, the county’s Ethics Code details enforcement procedures for violations and the Ethics Commission can assess civil penalties when appropriate.
McDonald and Councilman Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, generated the legislation following controversy over a mailing Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, sent to residents in his district at the end of June.
Bunney said he was putting information about important county business into the hands of his constituents. Cathy Dahlquist, one of his primary election opponents for the open House seat in the 31st Legislative District, complained the $13,000 mailing amounted to county-sponsored campaign literature.
Bunney met the existing mailing deadline at the time. He said over the last few weeks he supported the earlier mailing cutoff. Bunney survived the primary and will face Dahlquist in the November election.
The addition to the Ethics Code does allow council members to transact business with individual constituents or write letters of congratulations to people who’ve earned noteworthy honors.
Bush said they establish “a bright line” that makes it easy for everyone to know the rules.