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The state Fair Political Practices Commission is considering a clarification to state law that would make it illegal for public agencies to pay for political advertisements — unless they offer a balanced and impartial presentation of relevant facts.

The commission cites as a reason the recent $59,000 advertising campaign launched by the Unified Port of San Diego in opposition to a November ballot measure. The ballot initiative aims to allow development at the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, effectively usurping the port’s planning power.

As the law stands now, public agencies are prohibited from expressly advocating a position on a ballot measure. In other words, the agency cannot say: Vote yes! Or, Vote no!

But they can tell you reasons why they think that voting yes or no would be a horrible (or fantastic) idea.

In a staff memo, the FPPC says that is causing problems. Any outreach sponsored by a public agency should be “fair and impartial,” says the FPPC, the state agency that regulates campaign financing and spending. The agency doesn’t call out the Port District by name, but clearly references its outreach campaign, which purchased ads in 18 local newspapers.

The FPPC’s staff memo says:

“[M]any agencies are pushing the limits with public outreach programs clearly biased or slanted in their presentation of facts relating to a ballot measure supported or opposed by the agency. In one recent, and more extreme, example a local agency placed an advertisement in 18 publications denouncing a ballot measure that would diminish the agency’s planning powers.

We highlighted the port’s advertising campaign in a July story. Here’s a snippet:

The Unified Port of San Diego’s board has a message for you. It thinks a developer’s proposed November ballot initiative that would usurp its planning power is a horrible idea. It is vehemently opposed and wants you, a potential voter, to know it. Oh, and it wants you to remember that when you go to vote. … The advertisement never specifically tells voters to vote against the proposal from developers Richard Chase, Nancy Chase and Frank Gallagher. But it does remind them, when they’re voting, to remember what the port thinks. …

State law prohibits public agencies from using public money to advocate partisan positions in elections. They are, however, allowed to educate the public about election-related issues, provided they do not take partisan positions. The advertisement is the latest from a local public agency to raise questions about crossing the line between advocacy and education.

The FPPC is scheduled to hold its first discussion on the proposed change when it meets Sept. 11.

ROB DAVIS

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