Auditor-Controller OKs Mailers, But State Watchdog Has Yet to Rule

Supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett, the two members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors who serve on the CalOptima board.

Supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett, the two members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors who serve on the CalOptima board.

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County Auditor Controller Eric Woolery, after a meeting with County Counsel Leon Page, has decided to allow payments to go forward for questionable mass mailers sent by two supervisors.

In early April, Woolery said he was holding up payments on nearly a dozen mailers sent by the offices of supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett based on concerns that they might violate the state Mass Mailing Act, which generally prohibits elected officials from mentioning their name on publicly-funded mailers, except for a few exceptions.

Woolery’s action came after Voice of OC reported on a mailer for a job fair sent by Do and one sent by Bartlett advertising the South County Pet Expo. Both mailers use the names of the supervisor three times, in a return address, letterhead and again to invite residents to join their supervisor at the event.

On Thursday morning, Woolery said he decided to release the payments after Page explained the county policy and said attorneys from his office had consulted with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Although Woolery had initially asserted that the law only allows one reference to an elected official in a publicly-funded mailer, now he points to exceptions listed in the law that allow officials to be named.

“Mr. Page gave us justifications for the mailers, and it was based on some information he got from the FPPC. Because of that, because I’m limited in the scope of my review, and the vendors were acting in good faith, I went ahead and released his payments,” Woolery said.

Woolery said the county “cleared” the mailers with the FPPC by providing a copy of a mailer sent by Do’s office and communicating by email with their staff.

However, the county did not request a formal advice letter from the FPPC on the mailers, which is customary when an agency has questions regarding whether an action or a policy complies with various state laws having to do with government ethics.

The only email from county attorneys to the FPPC in the last two weeks was one from Senior Assistant County Counsel Ann Fletcher to a staff member clarifying a rule on whether a reference to a supervisor’s district is considered a reference to the elected official.

FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said that the county has not asked them to review or sign off on the overall legality of the mailers. “The ask from the county looks to me to be very specific,” said Wierenga.

Meanwhile, the FPPC has yet to decide whether it will launch a formal review of a complaint regarding Do’s mailers filed by Garden Grove councilman Phat Bui, one of Do’s opponents in the race for First District Supervisor.

While the FPPC does not comment on specific issues under review, FPPC staff said in an interview that in general, exceptions apply to the mailing as a whole, and agencies should pick the one exception that is most applicable to a mailing.

However, under some exceptions in the law, more than one mention can be appropriate, although it’s not clear how many mentions would constitute a violation.

Page’s office, citing a policy of not speaking to the media, has not commented on its justification for the approving the mailers. County spokeswoman Jean Pasco has also declined comment on Woolery’s decision or on the Mass Mailing policy.

Pasco, however, asserted in an March 31 email to Voice of OC that “the Mass Mailing Act allows multiple mentions of an officeholder as long as there is an applicable exception for each mention.”

And on April 1, Page also wrote a three-page memo to Woolery outlining exceptions in state law that allow for a reference to a public official on mailers, although he does not engage the question of how many mentions are allowed on a single piece of mail.

“Under these exceptions, mailers that feature or reference an elected official may be distributed in unlimited numbers without violating the act,” the letter reads.

Whether this reading of the state law will hold up won’t be known until the FPPC renders its decision on the complaint filed by Bui.

Woolery, who is independently elected, has tried in the past to push county supervisors to give him his own legal counsel, arguing that Page, who also represents the Board of Supervisors, has an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to issues with the board.

“I asked for legal counsel and the board didn’t give it to me, so I have to rely on county counsel,” Woolery said.

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed a quote from Auditor Controller Eric Woolery to County Counsel Leon Page.  

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

  • LFOldTimer

    So why did Woolery stop payment prior to getting a strong independent legal opinion on the mailers, only to buckle after his little backroom chat with Page? To put on a watchdog show for the peasants?

    Something stinks.

    The FPPC has proven to be a sham.

    Don’t expect anything except for feigned vigilance.

  • Cynthia Ward

    I don’t understand why elected officials need to have their names on ANYTHING. Our tax dollars are funding these health fairs, job fairs, pet expos, victim rights rallies, human trafficking awareness events, the list goes on. Take any service we expect our taxes to provide and they now want to make an event out of it, complete with the media along to show how star spangled awesome they are. We complain about young people wanting a gold star for showing up to work on time, but it appears our elected officials are of the same mind. “I did my job, I am offering constituents actual services in exchange for tax funds, aren’t I special?” Nope. How DARE they spend more of our money patting themselves on the back for doing the job they ASKED us for permission to do?!

    I have the same objection to the oversized, and outrageously priced, plaques that go on every public project, naming City Councils, County Supes, and every commissioner that ever touched an approval for the project. Plaques should be limited to;
    “The taxpayers of (community) funded this project. It cost $XX dollars in year XXXX. The bonds for the project will be repaid in year XXXX at a final cost of $xxxx. Please check the roof in XX years.”

    No, elected officials, you DID NOT build that library, open that park, rehab that community center. WE DID. Save the money and self-congratulatory backslapping for the plaques, for the mailers, for the media event, and put it toward yet another project to make life better for the constituents you asked to put you in that seat. You can tell us all about it with your campaign literature when it is time to run for office again, and do that on YOUR dime, not ours. Thanks for playing.

    • Cynthia Ward

      In fact, anyone know how much the events themselves COST? How many events can we get in exchange for the COST of the shameless self-promotion for the events? Is there a more cost effective way to advertise the events than direct mail?

      $43,766 in payments on six mailers sent by Do for a health fair, tax preparation event, job fair and unclaimed property event. They have also identified invoices and purchases for at least four other event mailers.

      $118,340 in payments for two mailers sent by Bartlett to 100,620 homes, advertising the South County Pet Expo and OC Parks Adventure Day. How many shelter animals can be cared for with the roughly $60K spent to advertise a COUNTY PET EXPO? How many banners could be hung at local parks to advertise the OC Parks Adventure Day for that $60K?

      I realize those amounts are drop in the bucket to a government that blows through many tens of millions, but to some of us that is still some REAL MONEY spent without a very tangible return on investment…unless you happen to be the elected leader getting your name and face out there ahead of your opposition.

  • David Zenger

    “I asked for legal counsel and the board didn’t give it to me, so I have to rely on county counsel,” Page said.

    No, Woolery said.

  • Jacki Livingston

    They need to stop coddling these fools. If you want to promote yourself, then pay your own way. Frankly, I wish they would pay for their own damn coffee and croissants. Exactly how much are the taxpayers shelling out, each year, for all of their Starbucks and catering from Corner Bakery and such? There ya go, Norberto…find out that. I would love to see that number.