Residents question ‘leaked’ emails calling for support of ballot measure (March 11, 2017)

APPLE VALLEY — Two emails composed by the town’s public relations firm became the subject of ridicule and legal scrutiny Thursday night during the Town Council’s special meeting.

The emails were sent to 50 residents and community leaders, and asked for attendance and support at an emergency meeting, during which the Town Council approved a June 6 special election related to its acquisition attempt of the water system currently owned by Liberty Utilities.

It would be great if some of you could attend the meeting and express your support for the town council’s actions, both emails read. We are pretty certain Liberty supporters will be there and we would like to see the town represented by people who are concerned about the high costs of water.

Several recipients were in attendance during the meeting and announced their support of the ballot measure, which, if passed by voters, would allow the town to incur debt up to $150 million to fund a purchase of Liberty’s water system.

20/20 Network Partner Tim Gallagher sent the emails at 3:49 and 3:51 p.m. on March 8. It’s unclear exactly when the meeting’s agenda posted to the town’s website, but the Daily Press received notice of the meeting via email from Deputy Town Clerk Debra Thomas at 5:23 p.m. on the same day the emails were sent, a little more than 25 hours before the meeting began.

The move angered some residents, who contended the nature of the 20/20 emails was a violation of election law.

Former Hesperia Mayor and Citizens for Government Accountability member Diana Carloni-O’Malley said the town allowed 20/20 to leak information regarding the meeting before the agenda posted to the town’s website.

It was sent out to public members that are your friends only, nearly two hours before you posted the public agenda, Carloni-O’Malley said. And to top things off, you are using public dollars to pay 20/20 to advocate and campaign for the measure before there is an actual election called.

Carloni-O’Malley said the emails appear to be a contribution of public monies as defined in the California Elections Code. That opinion was also expressed by fellow CFGA member Kerry Henard.

The section of the code referenced by O’Malley states that a contribution includes payment of public monies for a communication to the public that both expressly advocates the election or defeat … of a clearly identified measure, or … unambiguously urges a particular result in an election and the communication is made at the behest of the affected candidate or committee.

On Friday, Gallagher told the Daily Press the emails merely asked people who had previously supported the Town Council’s efforts to acquire the water system to attend the meeting and let the Council know that they supported the idea of holding a vote on the acquisition of the water system.

In line with prevailing law, Gallagher concluded, the email did not advocate a position on the measure.

In response to Carloni-O’Malley’s assertion that the emails were leaked, town spokeswoman Kathie Martin said they were not.

This wasn’t done in secret, Martin said. We always assume that the opposing side had people sign up on the email list on the old H2Ours site, so we assume they get anything we send.

Meanwhile, during the meeting, resident Leane Lee said the town’s contract with 20/20 expired Dec. 31, 2016.

Apparently you’ve done another contract or you’ve re-extended (it) … as evidenced by their (20/20’s) participation in support of this ballot measure in their emails sent out, Lee said.

Martin said she was unsure about renewal dates because the contract is between 20/20 and Best Best & Krieger, the town’s legal firm.

Other residents, including Christina Lopez-Burton and Pat Hanson, voiced frustration with what they described as a lack of advanced notice, and they characterized that lacking as an attempt of the town to hide the meeting from a majority of the public.

You must be afraid of what the community will do if you can’t give sufficient notification of this type of meeting, Hanson said.

For her part, Lopez-Burton offered a warning to the Town Council.

Even now, with barely 24-hours notice and a taxpayer-funded PR firm on a retainer, politicians are voting to spend hundreds of thousands on special elections where turnout is likely to be minimal, Lopez-Burton said. The town is doing everything possible to play politics with Apple Valley’s water future, including trying to disenfranchise voters … Apple Valley voters held government accountable last November, and they will again this June.

Lopez-Burton’s mention of hundreds of thousands of dollars references town documents that show the special election will cost the town $222,000.

Source: Matthew Cabe, Daily Press