Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Political Notebook: Supervisor Poochigian throws cash at Fresno County privatization measure

Fresno County’s least-known ballot measure in the coming election finally got an ounce of publicity, thanks to county Supervisor Debbie Poochigian.

Poochigian bankrolled a slew of mailers to county households this week, urging voters to support Measure O –- which would make it easier for the county to outsource government services.

The longtime Republican, who has been a strong advocate for privatizing county jobs as a way to reduce government spending, led efforts to get Measure O on the ballot.

Prior to the mailers, however, little had been said or done about the initiative since it was drafted last summer.

“If you support something and you believe in something, you got to put your money where your mouth is,” Poochigian said on Friday.

Financial reports due this week show that the supervisor’s campaign, through Oct. 20, spent $3,635 on the “Yes on O” mailers. That’s a drop in the bucket for Poochigian, whose campaign has more than a half million dollars in the bank, according to county records.

Labor groups have quietly opposed Poochigian’s initiative. But union officials said this week they, too, planned to spend money on the issue: $8,000 on mailers that both go against Measure O and stand in support of Measure B, the county’s library tax extension.

The local chapter of Service Employees International Union maintains that privatization decisions should not be easy for county leaders to make, arguing that politics in the near term can result in bad policy in the long run.

Political Notebook: Critics cry foul over Measure B mailer sent and paid for by Fresno County

A mailer that reads like a campaign brochure in support of Measure B — the one-eighth-cent sales tax that benefits local libraries — began landing in mailboxes today, courtesy of Fresno County.

In includes a “Dear Neighbor” letter from county Librarian Laurel Prysiazny and a question-and-answer section about libraries in general and Measure B in particular.

Given that Measure B is up for renewal in two weeks, the mailer caught the eye of some people in the community. Their question: Is the county paying for the mailer? Can the county use taxpayer money on such mailers?

The answer to both questions is yes, says campaign ethics expert Bob Stern.

“As long as it doesn’t say ‘vote for,’ a particular ballot initiative” he added.

A key part of the California Government Code reads: “An officer, employee, or consultant of a local agency may not expend or authorize the expenditure of any of the funds of the local agency to support or oppose the approval or rejection of a ballot measure, or the election or defeat of a candidate, by the voters.”

That means such mailers can even be slanted — and most are — as long as they are educational in nature.

One of the lines in the mailer says Measure B “simply extends the existing, voter-approved 1/8-cent sales tax for local libraries without extending the tax rate, and will continue to cost the average person about $12 a year.”

While that may sound like advocacy to some, it is simply educational to Prysiazny.

Measure B has been on the books for 14 years, but periodically needs to be reauthorized. It accounts for about half of the county library system’s total budget, paying for things like books, librarians and library buildings.

But when library officials did a survey in Marsh, Prysiazny said, 30% of those who participated didn’t know much about how Fresno County’s library system was funded.

“We knew we needed to do some education,” she said. “We are obligated to let people know what this money does for them.”

Prysiazny freely admits the mailer was paid for with library funds. She said she didn’t know the exact amount. But she also said library officials were careful to not advocate in the mailer — or in any other communication with county residents.

The mailer’s final layout, she said, was reviewed by the county counsel’s office.
“From my perspective,” she says, “we know it’s factual.”