Did an organizational meeting for a pro-park levy campaign, held on park district grounds, violate state campaign laws?
That was the charge leveled by islander Tom Hujar, representing a group called Bainbridge Parents for Better Parks, at a public hearing on the upcoming levy Thursday evening. Calling that earlier meeting – held March 11 at the Strawberry Hill Center, and attended by two park board members, district Director Dave Lewis and several private citizens – “a clear violation of public disclosure law,” Hujar called for sanctions against district staff and an audit of park operations.
He wasn’t done. “We have also been provided with documentation of misuse and misappropriation of park property that appears to have been ignored by the park district,” Hujar said – then failed to specify just what that “misuse and misappropriation” might have been.
Now, arguing that the park district wastes money or spends it on the wrong things is appropriate, if poorly timed, as we discuss the proposed $4-point-whatever million tax levy to go before voters again this year. But allegations of misconduct and misappropriation are serious – if such complaints have merit, they need to be brought into the open and dealt with.
So we called Phil Stutzman, director of compliance for the state Public Disclosure Commission, Friday morning and asked: Did levy supporters break state law by meeting at a park facility to discuss their campaign?
Probably not, Stutzman said. The ban on use of public resources in campaigns doesn’t apply to the general use of facilities by organizations; as long as a public hall is also made available to other community or political groups, and no favoritism is shown in scheduling, it’s okay. “There have been times when school levy committees have met in a school,” Stutzman told us, “and had fund-raisers right in the school.”
As to the charges of misappropriation of district property, Hujar offered no specifics (and as we reported in December, the most recent audit by the state found no such problems).
Interestingly, the PDC staff could find no record of Hujar’s own organization or its campaign expenditures in their files – even though the group purchased three large advertisements in this newspaper in January, opposing the park levy and identifying Hujar himself as chair.
Which brings us to a question raised by some in the gallery Thursday evening:
Just who are “Bainbridge Parents for Better Parks”?
When we interviewed Mr. Hujar in January, he promised to issue a statement that week identifying other members of his organization. No such statement proved forthcoming. Thursday, goaded by park board members and several in the audience, he again declined to say who else is affiliated with the campaign.
If folks take issue with park district operations, we’re listening. But if they’re going to level charges of misappropriation of resources and violations of state law, they should be ready to back it all up with facts.
And they should tell us exactly who they are. That is, after all, why we have campaign disclosure laws.