California Supreme Court Vargas Decision Reaffirms Prior Case Law Prohibiting the Use of Public Funds for Campaign Activities, but Upholds Informational Efforts That Do Not Utilize Public Funds...

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The California Supreme Court, in a very recent decision, Vargas v. City of Salinas, Case No. S140911 (April 20, 2009), clarified some of the legal ambiguities governing the use of public funds in connection with election campaigns. California Government Code section 54964(b) prohibits a local agency’s expenditure of funds for “communications that expressly advocate the approval or rejection of a clearly identified ballot measure.” Prior to passage of that statutory prohibition, the California Supreme Court had decided in the pivotal case of Stanson v. Mott, 17 Cal. 3d 206 (1976) that the use of public funds for campaign materials was unlawful in the absence of clear statutory authorization, but that reasonable expenditures of public funds for informational purposes to provide voters with a fair presentation of relevant facts and information to aid them in reaching an informed judgment relating to an issue on which the agency had labored was permitted. Because the distinction between permitted “informational” and prohibited “campaign” expenditures could be elusive, the Stanson decision provided some examples. The use of public funds to purchase bumper stickers, posters, advertising floats, or television and radio spots, as well as the dissemination of campaign literature prepared by private proponents or opponents of a ballot measure was “unquestionably” improper. On the other hand, the public agency pursued a proper “informational” role when it simply gave a “fair presentation of the facts” in response to a citizen’s request for information, or, when requested by a private or public organization, it authorized an agency employee to present the department’s view of a ballot proposal at a meeting of such organization.

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