News Story

Wrist-Slap For Sheriff’s Illegal Electioneering Irks Council Member

Deputies were sent to public meetings with ‘VOTE YES’ pro-tax hike messages

A city council member in Newaygo is not pleased by a Michigan Secretary of State decision to assess a fine of just $100 for a campaign finance law violation by the Newaygo County sheriff. At stake was a public safety property tax increase rejected by voters, which would have collected $7.5 million from property owners and homeowners over 10 years.

The punishment is a “slap on the wrist” and amounts to that of a “parking ticket,” Newaygo City Councilman Mike Hikade said in a phone interview. He suggested that a small fine downplays the seriousness of the offense when government officials violate campaign finance law, and he said that state legislators should look into changing the law.

Newaygo County Sheriff Bob Mendham was fined after violating a law that prohibits a public institution or a government official, while acting in a public capacity, from advocating for or against a specific ballot issue or candidate.

Mendham’s deputies, while on duty, spoke publically at township meetings about a proposed millage increase and handed out a brochure encouraging residents to support the property tax hike, which would have benefited the sheriff’s department financially. Mendham told the Secretary of State elections bureau that his officers were only answering questions of a factual nature – and not giving opinions.

But the document itself, which was produced using taxpayer resources and promoted by public employees on taxpayer time, clearly stated, “Vote Yes 2018 Public Safety Millage.” The Secretary of State found that the wording met the definition of prohibited “express advocacy.”

The Secretary of State ordered Mendham to pay a $100 fine and also pay back $146.92 in tax money that was estimated to have been used in advocating for the tax increase. Officials at the Secretary of State confirmed via email that Mendham paid the fine.

“I [accept] full responsibility,” Mendham said in an email. “I learned a lot through the process and will do a much better job if faced with this type of situation in the future.”

Hikade said that such a small fine does not reflect the serious nature of misusing taxpayer dollars to advocate for a particular election outcome. Although he said he is not an attorney, he believes that state lawmakers should pass more rigorous ethics laws that come down harder on people who violate them.

“To me, that was not enough,” Hikade said of the fine.

Additionally, Hikade said that he is surprised that the county clerk and the Board of Commissioners let the officers violate campaign finance law — including at public meetings of several townships — for so long. If he did not file a complaint, Hikade said, the violation would have been overlooked and the officers would have continued to advocate for the millage tax increase using taxpayer-funded resources.

Hikade said there has not been a millage increase in a while and there was no need to have one. The sheriff simply wanted more money to spend, Hikade said.

Voters defeated the tax increase at the polls in November 2018. Mendham paid the fine in January 2019.

Michigan Capitol Confidential has reported in the past on the Secretary of State's history of enforcement involving campaign finance violations.

Those stories can be read here, here and here.