Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel faced pushback Tuesday from a majority of her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors for the way she used taxpayer money to send 16,000 mailers to voters featuring herself and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas as they run for re-election.
“I think we’re just asking for trouble, doing things like this,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting. He warned that while the mailers may be legal, they could prompt Sacramento to enact tighter restrictions on what the supervisors can and can’t do with taxpayer-funded mailers.
“That mailer – very clearly – looks exactly like what it is. It’s an invitation basically to meet and greet to kind of get someone’s name out there, not to necessarily discuss [a] particular policy,” said Nelson. He joined supervisors Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett in criticizing Steel’s handling of the mailers.
Voice of OC reported Monday the publicly-funded mailers prominently featured Steel and Rackauckas, and invited recipients to RSVP for a “community coffee” with them at the home of Costa Mesa City Council candidate Lee Ramos.
The mailer was sent to 16,000 voters, but Steel’s staff knew the venue only could handle 50 people, according to county emails.
Bartlett called on her colleagues to “tighten up our policies,” and said Steel’s office appears to have not followed advice from county attorneys about how to make the mailers legal.
“When we sent out mailers and the venue is very small, it lends itself to, um – to comments. And I think we need to be cognizant of that fact,” Bartlett added. “Having things in a public venue I think is always perhaps a better idea, when you have a venue that can hold more people. And it doesn’t lend itself to being scrutinized to the level that we are today.”
Spitzer, who is running against Rackauckas in the June primary election, called the postcard invitations “campaign mailers” funded with taxpayer dollars.
“This is nothing more than a ruse,” Spitzer said, referring to the Jan. 27 coffee event.
“This was Campaign Mail 101. Lee Ramos, Tony Rackauckas, Michelle Steel,” Spitzer said. He also said the mailers may have violated a state law requiring the advertised event be “directly related to the elected [official’s] incumbent governmental duties.”
Steel didn’t respond to the allegations or follow-up requests for comment.
A spokeswoman for Rackauckas, who is in charge of enforcing that law in Orange County, declined to comment beyond a Monday statement. The statement said Steel invited Rackauckas to the event and it was the DA’s understanding the mailer was “discussed” with the county’s attorneys.
“I know that in this particular case, I think county counsel may have had some requested changes and they may not have been carried forth,” Bartlett said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Before the mailers were printed, a county attorney advised county employees state law required events advertised in the mailers be “directly related to the elected officer’s incumbent governmental duties,” according to an email reviewed by Voice of OC.
“There is no indication in the mailer that the meeting will concern issues directly related to the incumbents’ duties,” the county attorney, James Harman, wrote in an email, which was forwarded to Steel consultant Tyler Diep in mid-December, before the mailers were printed. Diep is a Westminster city councilman and candidate for the state Assembly.
“A reference in the mailer to the subject of the meeting (assuming it is directly related to both Chairwoman Steel’s and District Attorney Rackauckas’ incumbent duties)” would “bolster” the mailer’s legality, Harman added.
The criticism of Steel’s mailers came as the supervisors were about to vote on her request to hold four similar “community coffee” events in the coming weeks, three of which were scheduled to take place at private homes. Authorizing her request would allow Steel to promote her appearance there with taxpayer-funded mailers. It cost $5,787.97 to mail the Jan. 27 coffee invitation, and Steel has not disclosed how much she plans to spend on mailers for the her upcoming coffee events.
Chairman Andrew Do was the only supervisor to come to Steel’s defense, and repeatedly tried to stop Spitzer from raising criticisms and proposing policy changes.
“We’re not gonna spend this meeting to discuss what each supervisor does. That’s – to me that’s not within the purview of what we’re talking about here,” Do said when Spitzer was the first supervisor to criticize Steel.
Do said if an activity isn’t illegal, supervisors shouldn’t be able to talk about it.
“The standard is legality. If it’s not illegal, if it’s not against county policy, then it is not relevant,” Do said.
Spitzer pushed back, saying there are allegations Steel’s mailers last month violated California’s mass mailing law and that further violations could take place with future mailers.
“I’m not saying supervisors shouldn’t mail, but we have to follow the law,” Spitzer said.
Do, visibly frustrated, later told Spitzer: “I’m not going to sit here…and try to administer law against a colleague of mine.”
Spitzer shot back by noting Do’s $246,000-plus in taxpayer mailers during his 2016 re-election prompted the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to tighten the state law on local government mailers.
“Mr. Chairman, you have been the person who is the reason we are under so much scrutiny for the allegations with respect to mail. You know that,” Spitzer said. “SB 45 was introduced because of your mail. And I’m not about to let the county [government] misuse mail for campaign purposes. This was a campaign mailer, plain and simple.”
Do then expressed frustration at his inability to restrain Spitzer’s comments.
“I really don’t have any enforcement over a colleague if he were continuing to just talk,” Do said. Referring to the mailers, he said, “At some point, us as electeds, as legislators, we have to restrain ourselves and act in accordance with the law. No one disagrees with some of the concerns. But is this the right venue to take care of it?”
As part of his comments, Spitzer made three recommendations for county policy changes:
- If a supervisor refuses the advice of county attorneys regarding mailers, a conversation would be required between the supervisor and county’s chief attorney,
- No county government-sanctioned events at private homes, and
- Mailers featuring elected officials must state the “public purpose” of the event, and the policy would state that a “community coffee is not a public purpose.”
“We should never, ever, ever, ever expend taxpayer resources to boost the name recognition of somebody who’s got the political ambition to run for council,” Spitzer said, referring to Steel’s mention of Ramos in the mailer while he is running for City Council.
“I’m asking that from now on, as policy of this board, that we do not have government-sanctioned events at private homes. If you want to have a town hall, do it like everybody else does it – at a community center, a public senior center, or something like that.”
Spitzer’s suggestions did not gain traction from his colleagues, other than a general statement from Bartlett about the need to “tighten up” policies. No discussion or votes were scheduled on policy changes.
Steel stayed silent as her colleagues criticized her handling of the mailers. She didn’t respond to the claims, except to oppose a proposal by Spitzer to ban supervisors from using county mailers to promote events held at private homes.
Steel ultimately agreed to no longer hold her four upcoming “community coffee” events at homes, and the supervisors unanimously approved adding the events to the county budget.
During Tuesday’s discussion, she did not say if she would use similar mailers to promote her future events.
Rackauckas’ spokeswoman declined Tuesday to say what, if anything, the DA knew about the mailers, which prominently featured his name, before they were sent out. The spokeswoman, Michelle Van Der Linden, referred all further questions about the mailers to Steel’s office.
During the supervisors’ discussion, Do said enforcement of the mailer rules is up to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. But the law Do’s mailers inspired actually codified the FPPC regulations into a state law enforced by the District Attorney’s Office as a misdemeanor.
Spitzer said Rackauckas, who oversees enforcement of the law in Orange County, was a “beneficiary” of the mailers.
Asked for a response to Spitzer’s claims the mailers violated state law and that Rackauckas benefitted from the mailers, the DA’s spokeswoman responded by emphasizing that Steel’s office organized the event.
“Tony was an invited guest. [From] our understanding, everything was run through county counsel, so we don’t have any further comment,” said Van Der Linden.
Both Nelson and Bartlett warned Steel’s actions could prompt blowback from state lawmakers.
“The problem that we all have is, every time somebody does something and tries to get creative, and send a million mailers out for one reason or another, in the end that boomerang comes back,” Nelson said. “You throw it, [you] better duck when it comes back.”
Bartlett pointed out that Sacramento already passed a law blocking such mailers within 60 days of elections, in response to over $246,000 in county mailers Supervisor Andrew Do sent featuring himself ahead of his 2016 re-election.
“We don’t want to push things to the point where we end up with more legislation that is going to really box us in, at the county level,” Bartlett said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.