Government overreach. Gross abuse of taxpayer money. Abuse of power. Trampling on the rights of citizens to petition their government.
Here we are not talking about some tea party attack but a precedent-setting court action in one of America’s most liberal counties — Montgomery County, Md. – as reported in Monday’s Washington Post.
Here is the back story: The county executive and the county council sided with the police chief to take away bargaining rights from the police union. The police union gathered more than 35,000 signatures to take the issue to the ballot in November of 2012.
First, the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees to keep the referendum off the ballot. They lost. Then, instead of forming a campaign committee to advocate for their position in the upcoming election, County Executive Ike Leggett authorized a full-fledged political campaign to support Question B using taxpayer funds and county employees on county time. How was this justified? By claiming it was “government speech.”
So the county hired political consultants, produced political mailers targeting 163,000 households, used its computers, website and its list of 125,000 email addresses, produced yard signs and flyers, put bus signs on its buses, which were viewed 540,000 times a day, and produced advertising – all with taxpayer’s money.
As Judge Ronald Rubin wrote in his decision declaring the actions illegal, “the County crossed the line from providing information to a full bore partisan political campaign.” He also added, “It is beyond question that the referendum process itself is subject to the Election Law, including its campaign finance disclosure provisions.”
Ike Leggett and the Montgomery County government did not comply with the state law, they did not file a campaign committee, they did not report raising and expending funds, they did not pass “Go.” Instead, they went ahead and conducted a political campaign without regard for the proper legal process, based on the interpretation of an email from a state lawyer that the judge called “too thin a reed to support the blanket rule for which the defendants argue.”
Why is this important beyond a local dispute? The reason that this lawsuit was brought against the county was to uphold the democratic process, to ensure that such actions by a government, violating the law, would not stand. If Montgomery County was allowed to spend whatever it takes of taxpayer’s funds in a political campaign and command their employees to work on a campaign, our country is in trouble.
Think about it. How about initiatives and referenda dealing with abortion, or gun control, or gambling, or other worker’s rights questions — is it OK for government to employ a complete political campaign to advocate for one side or the other? With your money? Totally outside campaign laws?
In the end, Rubin ruled that, “based on this court’s factual findings, the question is not even a close call.”
Process matters. Fairness and democratic principles matter. That is a very important bottom line.