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UncategorizedPlanning Dept. flier looks like a Christensen campaign piece

Planning Dept. flier looks like a Christensen campaign piece

 Some say event email promotes incumbent during a political campaign; is this a misuse of public funds? (UPDATED)

Campaign flier -- at public expense?
Campaign flier — at public expense?

By Tim Redmond

SEPTEMBER 29, 2015 — Right in the middle of a heated political campaign, the San Francisco City Planning Department has sent out a mass email to the residents of District Three that almost looks like a campaign flier for Sup. Julie Christensen.

It may not be technically illegal, but that’s only because it’s an email not a paper mailing – the law that forbids the use of public resources in a way that could promote a candidate during a campaign was written in 1988, before email was common, and has never been updated.

Still, it raises serious questions that so far, the Planning Department has declined to answer.

“This is an outrageous use of city resources to promote Christensen’s campaign,” Kathleen Dooley, a longtime small business owner in North Beach and a supporter of Christensen’s leading challenger, Aaron Peskin, told me.

The mailing promotes a “mobile workshop” that will be held October 4 at the Piazza Market Building on Vallejo Street. It notes:

Thinking about a home remodel project? Curious about the recent In-Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) or restaurant legislations in District 3? This is an opportunity to speak directly with City staff in your own neighborhood to find out more.

After introductory remarks from Supervisor Christensen and a brief presentation from Planning staff, we will hold open Q&A sessions as well as scheduled 15 minute appointments with staff.

In other words, the city will be hosting an event at which an incumbent supervisor who is in the middle of a campaign will be able to make a speech, meet constituents and appear to be helping them with planning projects.

There’s a picture of the supervisor on the email.

If this had been delivered by the US Postal Service, it might violate state law. According to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Proposition 73, passed in 1988, bars elected officials from using public money for mass mailings.

Also:

[A] mailing featuring an elected officer or including a reference to an elected officer sent with public funds shortly before an election in which the officer is a candidate on the ballot may be prohibited under Regulation 18901.1. F

This was a “mailing featuring an elected officer” sent shortly before an election, using public funds.

However, in 1988, nobody used email for these types of communications. Jay Wierenga, a communications officer at the FPPC, told me that Regulation 18901 doesn’t apply to email.

And Prop. 73 was aimed at elected officials; the Planning Department is not an elected official, and so might not be directly covered.

But let’s be serious: The intent of Prop. 73 was to prevent exactly the sort of thing that this flier represents – the use of public funds to promote a political candidate.

“I’m ashamed of the Planning Department,” longtime land-use lawyer Sue Hestor told me. “Whether or not it’s illegal, the Planning Department has always wanted to be seen as impartial. To do this during an election undermines any credibility they have.”

Not every Planning Department neighborhood mailing involving local supervisors looks this way. When the department sent out an email to the Richmond District talking about a forum on upcoming planning issues, there was a passing mention of the district supervisor, Eric Mar – but no picture of Mar.

This Planning email in the Richmond doesn't have a picture of Sup. Eric Mar and doesn't look like a campaign flier
This Planning email in the Richmond doesn’t have a picture of Sup. Eric Mar and doesn’t look like a campaign flier

I asked the Planning Department’s spokesperson, Gina Simi, for comment on whether the Department had coordinated with Christensen, but she didn’t respond. Nor did the Christensen campaign.

UPDATE: Simi sent me the following:

We make every effort to time these events with current legislation or Department plans that impact a specific district and provide an opportunity to speak with their representative about it. As you may know, there has been recent legislation introduced by Sup. Christensen regarding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and we are currently in the middle of an outreach program on the topic.  These events provide an opportunity to educate the community about recent legislation affecting them directly, as well as provide an opportunity for them to ask general Planning questions such as windows, signs, other programs we offer, etc.

 

Please be assured that the City Attorney’s office is aware of the D3 Workshop as well as the D8 Mobile Workshop with Supervisor Wiener in June. No violations or inappropriate actions have taken place in conjunction with the D3 Mobile Workshop. They are also aware of the District 5 Mobile Workshop that is scheduled later in October with Supervisor Breed that will also include DBI, PUC, Public Works, and MTA.

We promoted this event via social media, on our website, through the Commission Director’s Report, and through our electronic notification system (e-mail lists).

All of this could be entirely innocent: District supervisors constantly work with city departments on district issues. The Planning Department could have put this event together with no knowledge of the fact that Christensen is in the middle of a re-election campaign, and that the email might look like a campaign flier.

But really? Does anyone think that this looks good?

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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