News Story

Jackson County Tells Voters To Show ‘Love’ For Parks

Michigan pretends to ban taxpayer-funded electioneering, local governments pretend to comply

“Love Your Parks”

That’s the message of a campaign flyer posted on the website of Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department website. It is also on signs placed at the parks themselves.

“Why do Parks Matter?” the flyer asks before giving the department’s answer: With parks, children have better health, more respect for people and better performance in school.

“It is about our children’s future” the signs read. “For only $25 a year, about $0.07 a day, you can show you love your parks!”

Jackson County is asking for a $2.18 million annual property tax increase for 10 years. The measure is on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot.

The flyer delivers what looks like a strong endorsement of the tax hike request, even though Michigan’s campaign finance law prohibits public entities from spending taxpayer dollars to support or oppose any ballot question, including a tax hike.

"The material was prepared by our PR Team and reviewed/ approved by our legal counsel before being released. The information was for purpose of educating citizen on need/ purpose of millage proposal and does not ask them to vote yes," said Jeff Hovarter, the Jackson County Parks director, in an email. "That was the determination of our legal counsel. There is vote yes material in circulation published by the Citizens Committee that formed in support of the millage. They raised their funds to support signs and mailings."

The parks department message would not violate the campaign finance law because the state officials responsible for enforcing it have interpreted what constitutes a violation in extremely narrow terms.

As long as a public body stays away from the words “vote yes” or “support this bond,” the Michigan Secretary of State’s elections bureau will not find a violation.

“This is exactly why we need tougher enforcement of the Michigan campaign finance law to outlaw campaigning by public bodies,” said Eric Doster, an election law expert and attorney who used to be general counsel for the state Republican Party.

Doster said most municipalities know to avoid the “magic words” and can promote a yes vote without saying, “vote yes.”

“Government has no role in influencing elections,” Doster said. “That’s for people to do.”