Saline school district removes pro-bond proposal video, but says it didn't violate campaign laws
Saline Area Schools officials removed a video from the district's website today after questions were raised over the legality of posting content from an employee who asked voters to support the school bond extension on the ballot Feb. 22.
But district administrators and attorneys say the video didn't violate campaign finance laws.
In the video, Doug Bacon, the district's director of facilities, explained what good could come from extending the school bond. At the end of the video, Bacon said, “I’d like to ask for your support for our upcoming bond extension on Feb. 22.”
Saline Superintendent Scot Graden said it was clear the school district didn't violate any election rules. He said the district’s attorneys told him that as long as employees don't explicitly ask for a “yes” vote, they would be in the clear.
“From our standpoint, this is a non-issue,” he said.
The portion of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act that most directly applies to the issue — section 169.257 — says: "A public body or an individual acting for a public body shall not use or authorize the use of funds, personnel, office space, computer hardware or software, property, stationery, postage, vehicles, equipment, supplies, or other public resources to make a contribution or expenditure or provide volunteer personal services that are excluded from the definition of contribution under section 4(3)(a). This subsection does not apply to any of the following: (f) An elected or appointed public official or an employee of a public body who, when not acting for a public body but is on his or her own personal time, is expressing his or her own personal views, is expending his or her own personal funds, or is providing his or her own personal volunteer services."
Graden said Bacon volunteered to do the two-minute video, which was filmed on school property.
The district is asking voters to approve a revamped version of the proposal rejected in the 2010 primary election. The new proposal would add $22 million in new debt to the current $124 million bond by extending repayment six years — from 2024 to 2030. The new proposal asks for $6 million less than the bond proposal shot down in August.
Pat Berardo, an attorney with the Thrun Law Firm who has been working in elections for 40 years, said Bacon’s comments were not a violation. He said the state of Michigan follows federal courts on campaign finance issues. He said there's a difference between asking for a “yes” vote and asking for support.
“You can what tell the benefits of the proposition are or what it means to the program, but there is a difference between asking for support and saying, ‘Please vote yes,’” he said. “That would cross the line and be a violation.”
At least one attorney disagrees with Graden and Berardo’s assertions.
Bob LaBrant, general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said Graden was mistaken in his belief that as long as Bacon avoided asking for a yes or no vote, there was no violation. He said asking for support is the equivalent of asking for a yes vote.
“Support is basically an express advocacy term for ‘yes,’” he said, citing the Buckley vs. Valeo federal Supreme Court case. “It’s just as if he had said defeat instead of ‘no.” It would still be advocating a ‘no” vote.”
Kyle Feldscher covers K-12 education for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.