News Story

Yard signs at Cheboygan senior center advocate for senior millage

‘It looks terrible,’ said one election law expert. But is it illegal? It depends

On the path to the Sand Road Senior Center in Cheboygan, a multitude of blue-and-white yard signs encourage visitors to “Vote YES on senior millage renewal.”

The Sand Road Senior Center is owned and operated by the Cheboygan County Council on Aging, a government entity. The yard signs are advocating for a government millage, on government property.

“It looks terrible,” Eric Doster, a Lansing-based election lawyer, told Michigan Capitol Confidential.

In August, the voters of Cheboygan County will be asked to approve a renewal of its Senior Citizens Service Millage, which expired in December. The Cheboygan News reports that the half-mill tax levy brings in about $814,000 annually.

According to the news outlet, “All funds generated from this millage are divided up between the Cheboygan County Council on Aging and the Wawatam Area Senior Citizens Organization to provide services such as meals, transportation, home care services and other needs to the senior citizen population throughout the county.”

Millages are fine. They raise money for important community projects.

The problem is the yard signs. Who produced them? Who posted them? And who has allowed them to remain posted on public property?

The signs are inappropriate — they use government property to advertise a millage benefiting the very agency that sits on the property. But are they illegal?

That depends, Doster said. Do the signs provide monetary value? That, too, depends. Did a government agency produce the signs? Did its employees place them, on the clock?

If that did not happen, and the agency merely allowed the signs to be placed, the argument is weakened, Doster said.

If, however, signs opposing the millage were disallowed on the same space, that would be a problem, Doster said. In 2013, he literally wrote the book on Michigan campaign finance law.

“If I was a resident, I'd still file a complaint,” Doster said. “Let the Bureau of Elections squirm on that.”

Tracy Wimmer, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Bureau of Elections, said the bureau could not speak on a matter that could potentially be subject to a public complaint. No such complaint has been filed, Wimmer said.

Wimmer explained that when a complaint is received of an alleged Michigan Campaign Finance Act violation, the bureau reviews it. If warranted, it opens an investigation. Both the complainant and the accused would be allowed to offer more information.

Wimmer said that if investigation determines a violation has occurred, the bureau of elections and Secretary of State “have a statutory obligation” to try to settle the matter with a “conciliatory agreement.”

If an agreement can’t be reached on an alleged violation, the Secretary of State might refer the matter criminally, Wimmer said.

Leadership at the Cheboygan County Council on Aging did not respond to requests for comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.