By WIN GRUENING
Juneau’s upcoming Oct. 4 municipal election will feature a longer than usual ballot. Besides the three assembly seats and two school board seats up this year, the ballot will contain several financial measures and a repeal initiative that voters will decide.
In the past, voters have relied primarily on media reporting of Assembly actions and short informational descriptions available on the city website, voter pamphlets, and the printed ballot to inform their decisions. Legal constraints may limit governmental entities going much beyond this to campaign for or against municipal ballot measures, but traditionally city officials have refrained from active advocacy, allowing voters to research their own voting choices.
At their next assembly meeting on Aug. 1, assembly members will take public testimony and debate a departure from this long-held tradition. They will be considering the expenditure of a significant amount of public money to persuade voters how to vote on two of the measures on the October ballot.
The Assembly created this situation through a less than transparent and rough-shod property tax assessment policy and a budgeting process that funded a number of controversial projects.
First, the recent sharp increases in commercial and residential property assessments followed by acrimonious and drawn-out appeal processes for hundreds of property owners was further compounded by a new city requirement to publicly disclose property sales prices or face a stiff fine. This left many property owners with a distrust of the taxing regime and spawned a petition to reverse the disclosure requirement which will now appear on the October ballot.
Second, during this year’s budgeting process, seemingly there was little the Assembly was unwilling to fund despite Juneau’s shrinking population and declining student counts in the schools. Millions of dollars towards a cultural arts center, previously turned down by voters, coupled with a brand-new city hall topped the list. Projects approved for funding in the 5-year 1% sales tax renewal were so numerous that the Assembly couldn’t fund them all. Solution: the Assembly carved out millions for park improvements on a separate bond issue that will also be on the October ballot.
Suddenly, the Assembly has realized that a ballot containing the $60 million 1% sales tax renewal, $6.6 million for parks, $35 million for a new city hall (on top of the $6.3 million already allocated), along with a ballot measure to repeal property sales price disclosure, will finally persuade taxpayers to say enough is enough.
Hence their decision to consider “educating” voters by committing up to $50,000 for a professional campaign that would actively promote the construction of a new city hall and openly oppose the repeal of mandatory real estate price disclosure.
This is an inappropriate use of public money.
The Juneau city manager believes that absent municipal participation in these public decisions, voters won’t have access to the facts or best arguments supporting the City Hall proposal or the merits of mandatory real estate price disclosure.
The problem is that what the Juneau Assembly and city staff construe as “fact” may only be their opinion or interpretation. Their stated intent is not to remain neutral.
For instance, on the real estate disclosure ballot repeal measure they can express an opinion that tax assessments won’t be as accurate if it passes but need not weigh that against citizen privacy concerns.
City staff will also make the argument a new city hall will save $800,000 per year in rental costs but even the city’s own cost/benefit analysis revealed it will take over 50 years for the project to break-even, assuming interest rate and construction cost projections are accurate.
Essentially, Juneau city leaders fear that the public will not rely solely on Assembly assurances but will also consider opinions expressed and facts available on social media and through private advocacy groups.
Spending $50,000 of public money on two campaigns to influence voters and defend controversial Assembly decisions, while the city government also bears responsibility for conducting a fair and impartial election and reporting results, is inappropriate and improper. This threatens the integrity of the electoral process and will give one side an unfair advantage, at public expense. Private citizen groups, however, are welcome to raise funds to campaign for and against any ballot issue.
It is condescending to believe Juneau voters aren’t smart enough to make their own voting decisions based on independent and publicly available information.
After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.