Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 20, 2013

State: TCAPS violated election laws for flyer

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools officials violated election laws when they mailed voters a flyer that sought support for last fall's $100 million bond proposal, the Michigan Secretary of State ruled.

The district spent roughly $20,000 to produce and mail glossy campaign literature in October. The flyers asked voters to support "the continuation of TCAPS' long-term capital infrastructure improvement plan by authorizing a bond proposal on Nov. 6, 2012."

Michigan's Campaign Finance Act prohibits the use of public money to promote or denounce a ballot question.

Former Grand Traverse County Commissioner Jason Gillman subsequently filed a complaint with the Secretary of State's office.

"I feel vindicated," Gillman said of the ruling. "It's a win for the taxpayers."

Gillman's complaint alleged the district improperly used public funds by directing voters to authorize the bond proposal.

The state's ruling concurred.

"The flyer expressly advocates the passage of the ballot question, which places it squarely within the MCFA's prohibition of the use of public resources to make a contribution or expenditure," the ruling stated.

Gillman said he filed the complaint in an effort to hold TCAPS officials accountable.

"I wouldn't want people to think I'm just out trying to cause trouble for the schools," Gillman said. "If they willfully violate rules and laws that are in place for a reason, I'm going to hold them to that."

TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins reviewed the literature prior to its publication.

"As superintendent I take full responsibility for this issue," Cousins said. "We did not intend to violate the act or mislead the public."

The ruling states the state will attempt to reach an "informal resolution" to the election law violation with TCAPS. The Secretary of State ordered the district to provide its office with information, including the number of flyers printed and distribution costs, by May 6.

Informal resolutions can include anything from an agreement to refrain from committing further violations to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said.

Woodhams would not discuss exactly what the TCAPS' informal resolution might entail.

"We found there was a violation and we are reviewing what the penalty might be," he said.

The case will be referred to the Michigan Attorney General for possible enforcement of criminal penalties if an informal resolution isn't reached within 90 days of the April 18 ruling.

Cousins said TCAPS values the community's trust and will work with the Secretary of State to ensure no future election law violations occur. He also apologized to Gillman and the TCAPS community for any confusion caused by last fall's flyer.

The state released its ruling as the district concludes an extensive review of why voters rejected the bond question, which included several elementary school renovations, funding for technology and buses, major reconstruction at Central Grade School and an $18-million auditorium project at Central High School.

The proposal lost by nearly a 60 to 40 percent margin.

TCAPS Board of Education President Kelly Hall said the board is committed to preventing future election law violations. The board will decide next month whether to pursue another bond proposal this fall.

"I do not believe this effects the substantive merits of another bond issue," Hall said.