July 23, 2020

The Public Disclosure Commission today fined Olympia’s former city manager $10,000, with half suspended, for a 2019 campaign mailer that urged voters to reject Initiative 976.

The decision to fine former City Manager Steve Hall came on a vote of 4-1, with Commissioner Russell Lehman casting the dissenting vote.

I-976, which was approved by Washington voters on Nov. 5, 2019, sought to limit vehicle license fees and taxes. Olympia’s two-page mailer explicitly urged recipients to reject it, stating “Every dollar counts. Thank you for doing your part to fix our streets. Vote NO on Initiative 976.”

State law prohibits the use of public resources or facilities to support or oppose a candidate or ballot measure. While producing a single jurisdiction-wide factual statement about a ballot measure is permitted under PDC guidelines, public agencies may not urge support or opposition to a measure.

The City of Olympia mailer was distributed only to registered voters, which was cited as an aggravating factor in the PDC enforcement action.

Hall, the former city manager who retired after the election, acknowledged in a stipulation negotiated with PDC staff that he approved the content of the mailer developed by city staff. He said he consulted with other city officials following a resolution opposing the initiative that was adopted unanimously by the Olympia City Council.

Commissioner Bill Downing noted that while it is commendable of Hall to accept responsibility for the decision, there is a general perception that responsibility extends “up and down the line” within the city.

Lehman explained that he agreed, and said that is why he subsequently voted “No” on accepting the stipulation.

Chad Standifer, attorney for PDC staff, said the evidence gathered in the case showed that while Hall discussed general plans for the mailer with the mayor and City Council members, there is no evidence that they knew about particular content or the “Vote No” language.

Vice Chair Fred Jarrett said the Commission wanted to send a message that city officials are responsible for following the law. The fact that the Olympia City Council had previously approved a resolution opposing the initiative did not permit the city to use public funds to send a mailer urging the same.

The city spent more than $9,900 on the effort, including printing, mailing and staff time.

The Commission suspended half of the $10,000 fine, provided that the remaining $5,000 is paid within 30 days of its final order being issued, that Hall commits no further violations of campaign law or regulation within four years and that he complies with PDC reporting requirements.

Read more about the case in PDC documents online.