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Time To Crack Down on Election Violations

January 19, 2011 J

Oregon election law provides penalties for government employees and public officials who are found to have illegally used taxpayer resources to advocate for or against political causes. Typically, the advocacy is on behalf of higher taxes or more government spending, so the potential rewards for breaking the law are high. The penalties are a joke, calling for a very low fine for a violation that may have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

Such a case was recently seen in the City of West Linn, where two City officials were found to have produced a city newsletter that qualified as illegal political advocacy. The City Manager was fined $175 and the Assistant City Manager $75 for the violation. The production and mailing of this information cost taxpayers thousands.

It should be obvious that the current system of fines is inadequate. In virtually every election season, some local official is found to have violated election laws, and is given some slap-on-the-wrist fine. Typically, the violations are for using taxpayer resources to advocate higher taxes or more government spending. Citizens know these penalties are a joke and it is likely that many complaints are not even filed because the consequences are so slight.

It’s well past time for the Legislature to revisit political advocacy issues by government officials using taxpayer resources. To stop this practice, the penalties are going to have to hurt. In addition, taxpayers deserve to recover the money that is spent on these advocacy pieces.

The law should be updated so that any Oregon government official who is found to have violated election law on a first offense must reimburse the local or state government the entire cost of the political advocacy piece he or she helped produce. This would include any government staff time (salary for the time, plus pro-rated benefits costs), printing, mailing costs and so on. A second violation of this election law provision should result in reimbursement and immediate termination. The law should also reflect that a person found to have violated these provisions of Oregon election law twice may no longer be employed by any government agency at any level in Oregon.

Across this state, Oregon government officials use taxpayer resources – including email and cell phones – to advocate for political causes. Lax enforcement of the law and meaningless punishments for violators have allowed local officials to waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. The 2011 Legislature should take strong action to end this practice.

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