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If you missed this Rob Davis story, take a second and read it. The Port of San Diego is doing a little dance on the line between appropriate dissent about a challenge to its authority and the inappropriate use of public funds to oppose a ballot measure.

There are few things more irritating — and, unfortunately, prevalent — in San Diego than the use of public funds by its myriad agencies to support or oppose various ballot measure. Long-time readers will remember my angst about Grossmont Healthcare District’s 2006 spending on feel-good ads about Grossmont Hospital, which came conveniently at the same time that the entity was asking voters to sign off on a $247 million bond issuance — a levy of about $40 a year on each East County property owner served by the hospital.

A Grossmont spokesman at the time fully admitted that the taxpayer-funded ads were part of the effort to pass the ballot measure.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a public agency taking a stand on a ballot measure. Groups from the San Diego City Council to the Community College District have all endorsed or opposed various initiatives. More power to them. But they have to draw the line and avoid spending the public’s money to push their efforts.

Officials up and down the state have gotten hammered for crossing that line. But there’s a nuance. An agency can legally spend money “educating” the public about its position on an issue.

Too bad the “education” typically goes something like this: “If you want congestion, headaches and a strange foot infection we can’t identify yet, you can go ahead and vote against the Initiative to Make Your Life Better Than Ever. If, on the other hand, you want free ice cream every day while you commute, you should vote yes on it.”

The San Diego Association of Governments did it with heavy expenditures in 2004 in favor of the Transnet sales-tax extension: You probably won’t be able to live in San Diego with all the traffic that will build up unless you approve this sales tax.

The airport authority did it in 2006 with the ballot measure to put a new airport of some kind at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. You’ll be haunted with guilt for years to come because of all the damage you’ll do to the local economy if you don’t approve this initiative.

And now, the Port. It’s so far spent far less on newspaper ads opposing a ridiculously complex initiative that would overhaul the port’s planning powers and pave the way for some kind of mega development on the desirable 10th Avenue Marine Terminal.

As Davis writes, the port spent nearly $60,000 on ads opposing the measure:

“Before casting a ballot, the Board urges your careful consideration of this educational message,” the advertisement says. “This initiative threatens an important source of regional jobs and well-paying jobs, which we believe you should protect and preserve.”

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If they aren’t violating the letter of the law, they’re coming close to trampling on its spirit. The power of their arguments should be enough. They needn’t spend taxpayer dollars on it.

Davis provided some good context about the reason for the ethical line prohibiting public expenditures in favor or against a ballot initiative:

“Such expenditures raise potentially serious constitutional questions,” Justice Mathew Tobriner opined in the 1976 ruling, Stanson vs. Mott, which found that a state official had improperly used public money to advocate for a bond package. “The use of the public treasury to mount an election campaign which attempts to influence the resolution of issues which our Constitution leaves to the ‘free election’ of the people does present a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral process.”

The ruling notes that advertisements can be improper even though they may not specifically tell voters how to vote. The state Fair Political Practices Commission, which regulates campaign finance, defines advocacy as “unambiguously” urging a particular result. It can fine public agencies up to $5,000 for violating that law; the local district attorney can similarly investigate whether public funds were properly used.

The lesson is simple: Every time you see an ad for a hospital and you have no idea what the point of it is, look around for a bond measure. No doubt, they’re trying to influence your vote, and they are doing it with your money. The same, apparently, goes for random messages about protecting jobs at the port.

SCOTT LEWIS

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