Questions Surround Mailers Sent by County Supervisors

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

Two recent event mailers funded by the offices of county supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett are raising questions about how elected officials can use their names on publicly funded promotional materials sent to constituents.

State law restricts how elected officials can display their name and likeness on  mailers, with the intent of keeping incumbents and other candidates on a level playing field.

Earlier this month, the First District spent $18,374.08 on 57,419 mailers to advertise a job fair, which was held Wednesday, to constituents under the age of 55. It displayed Do’s name in bold letters on one side, and his name and district office next to a county logo on the other.

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Click to view a full-size version of the front and the back of the mailer. 

The Fifth District also distributed a mailer to residents advertising the South County Pet Expo, an animal adoption event held last Saturday, with Bartlett’s name included in the return address on one side, and her name twice on the other. County officials didn’t make the total number and cost of those mailers immediately available.
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Click to view a full-size version of the front and back of the mailer.

State regulations prohibit public agencies from sending mass mailers featuring the name, signature, office, likeness or photos of elected officials affiliated with the agency,

There are a few exceptions. An elected official’s name can be included once in a mailing if it is part of the stationary, letterhead, logo or on the envelope. An official can also publish their name on a mailing if they plan to attend a public meeting, or to announce a event hosted by the agency, although the mailing can only contain one reference to the public official.

Both the First and Fifth District mailers mention Do and Bartlett, respectively, at least three times.

“Generally speaking, there are restrictions [on mailers] because it gives the incumbent an advantage at taxpayer’s expense,” said Jay Wierenga, spokesman for the FPPC.

Mailers funded by public dollars “have to be used for a wider, general public benefit of information when it comes to communications from elected or appointed officials,” Wierenga said.

Do, who is currently running for reelection this November, faces at least four challengers, including Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez and Garden Grove Councilman Phat Bui. Bartlett is not up for reelection until 2018.

Neither Do nor Bartlett returned requests for comment.

However, their staffs said the mailers were thoroughly vetted by County laywers for compliance with the county’s branding policy and the state’s mass mailing policy before they were distributed.

First District Chief of Staff Brian Probolsky also defended the use of mass mailers in general as a way to reach out to different constituencies.

“It’s ironic that a reporter, who last week criticized Garden Grove for its outreach failures, is attacking outreach for an event to help people find jobs,” Probolsky said. “Government agencies can’t rely on social media and newspapers alone to communicate with the public.”

The issue, however, isn’t the outreach itself, but how supervisors’ choose to brand and promote events held by their offices. And, in the past, their colleagues on the dais have leveled that criticism.

Last March, a request by Bartlett to organize annual senior fairs in her South County district sparked a heated over the fine line between public outreach and political self-promotion.

At that meeting, Fourth District Supervisor Shawn Nelson took a thinly veiled shot at former Supervisor Janet Nguyen, who is now a state senator, accusing her of improperly promoting herself through county-funded events.

While a supervisor, county-organized health fairs were known to feature prominent references to her, including event signs with Nguyen’s name written in large block letters.

Do, who worked as Nguyen’s chief of staff at the time, disputed Nelson’s accusation, saying that county events by their very nature aren’t political.

Although the state has strict rules on how elected officials can display their names on mass mailers, the county’s branding policy allows officials to place their name and office on promotional materials and on banners, table skirts, and tent canopies at county events.

The FPPC has penalized public agencies in the past for spending taxpayer dollars on mass mailers.

In 2014, the city of Rocklin was fined $2,000 dollars for spending $20,000 on a newsletter that featured a photo and message from its mayor and photos and names of its city council members.

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