News Story

Township Officials Sue Tax Hike Opponents For Successfully Committing Politics Online

Voters deprived officials of opportunity to spend more

Two Bloomfield Township officials have filed a class-action lawsuit against the social media platform Nextdoor for allegedly allowing local members to spread false information about a tax hike proposal, on the August 2019 ballot, for a special assessment. The officials blame the online postings for influencing a majority of voters to vote “no” on a measure that would have increased local property taxes by about 10%. They characterized the defeat as the equivalent of a $9 million loss to the township’s fire and police budgets.

The Yatooma Law Firm filed the lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court on May 5 on behalf of Bloomfield Township Supervisor Leo Savoie, Township Treasurer Brian Kepes, and “all others similarly situated.”

Nextdoor, a privately held, California-based company, describes itself as a social media platform that helps people communicate with others in their neighborhood.

Approximately 11,000 Bloomfield Township residents had joined the platform by early 2020, according to the lawsuit.

Bloomfield Township residents Valerie Murray, who is running for a township trustee seat, and Kathleen Norton-Schock, the regional director responsible for enforcing Nextdoor’s guidelines and policies, are also named as defendants.

Norton-Schock allegedly allowed Murray and others to “monopolize posting boards with demonstrably false postings designed to fabricate fear and panic,” according to the lawsuit.

Nextdoor’s policies specify that postings must be “helpful, not hurtful,” and prohibit postings that “attack, shame, insult, bully or belittle” other members, according to the lawsuit.

Political comments are permitted in some areas, but are required to be “neutral in tone,” the plaintiffs noted.

The suit claims that Murray, “under the guise of being a ‘concerned’ citizen,” monopolized and intentionally spread misinformation “designed to defeat a ballot initiative” aimed at increasing funding to fill police and fire department vacancies.

Murray also made posts declaring that information provided on the township’s website about the ballot initiative was false, the lawsuit claimed. It also claimed that Murray said township offices were closed due to COVID-19 when they were not, and alleged that officials were trying to line their own pockets by pushing for the ballot initiative.

“Murray further repeatedly made false claims, with no factual basis whatsoever, regarding the status of Bloomfield Township services ... [and implied] that only she could be trusted to provide truthful information,” according to the lawsuit.

Murray made no attempt to conceal the intent of her actions, the plaintiffs claimed.

“Murray has freely admitted that she has used NextDoor as a political tool and will continue to do so in the future,” the lawsuit read.

Bloomfield Township residents sent complaints to Norton-Schock regarding the “campaign of misinformation and voter intimidation” launched by Murray, according to the lawsuit. But the company, it said, “freely allowed Murray unfettered access” and continued to enforce its policies “in a discriminatory fashion.”

The ballot initiative ultimately failed “as a result of Defendants’ malicious and intentionally misleading campaign,” depriving residents of “economic and public service expectancies,” the plaintiffs alleged.

“NextDoor neglected to enforce its own policies, thereby causing the loss of public service benefits to members of its Bloomfield Township neighborhood community and Bloomfield Township residents overall,” the lawsuit claimed.

The loss of services represented by not raising their taxes on Bloomfield Township residents could cost them their lives, the plaintiffs warned.

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.