City condemns state ‘gag order’ before local elections

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 27, 2016

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The Sterling Heights City Council refused to be silent about a recently passed law that city officials say restricts how and when municipalities may present information about local ballot issues.

At a Jan. 19 meeting, the council voted to adopt a resolution that urges the state to repeal a portion of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which Gov. Rick Snyder signed as Senate Bill 571 Jan. 6.

Councilman Nate Shannon said the new law overreaches the state’s authority, and he called it a free speech issue that “puts a gag order on council and administration from discussing a millage proposal … at any city-sponsored event or providing factual information to residents so they may make an informed vote.”

Shannon said violations of the law could produce a $20,000 fine.

“The governor signed the bill even though he knew there were legal problems with it,” Shannon said. “This is ineptitude displayed at its greatest level.”

In a late December email, City Manager Mark Vanderpool said it would be hard to find a city, village or township that would support the legislation. He also chimed in on what he believes are its consequences.

“For example, there have been numerous ballot proposals to legalize use of recreational marijuana in cities across the state,” Vanderpool said. “This legislation would prohibit police chiefs, school superintendents and other professionals from providing factual data about enforcement challenges and potential consequences of such a proposal.”

Besides Sterling Heights, the new law received opposition from groups such as the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the Michigan Municipal League and the Macomb Area Communities for Regional Opportunities.

In a Jan. 6 letter, Snyder said the law he signed includes many reforms to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.

Snyder said the latest changes only apply 60 days before an election toward communication made by a public body via radio, TV, phone recordings or mass mailings targeted to a relevant electorate and pertaining to a local ballot question.

“The new language in subsection (3) only applies when local governmental entities use taxpayer resources to distribute mass communications concerning ballot questions,” he said. “As I interpret this language, it is intended to prohibit communications that are plain attempts to influence voters without using words like ‘vote for’ or ‘support.’”

In contrast, he said, “Policymaking officials still can express their own views; a public body can use its facilities to host debates or town halls on ballot questions; and local officials can express their own personal views on their own personal time.”

Nevertheless, Snyder said he supported having the Legislature clarify that the latest changes don’t impede public officials from speaking their personal opinions. He said Michigan’s Senate majority leader and House speaker agreed to work toward clarifying the act in time for March.

At the Jan. 19 Sterling Heights City Council meeting, all of the council members spoke out in favor of repealing that part of the law. Councilwoman Maria Schmidt said an effort to “gag the mouths of any elected body” does a disservice to residents who need facts.

“I really believe that an uneducated voter is a dangerous voter,” she said.

Mayor Michael Taylor said the state’s action sends a message that implies that cities are incapable of providing unbiased information, and he believes that it’s a way to make it harder for cities to pass millages.

“It needs to be not just tweaked; it needs to be repealed,” Taylor said.

Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.

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