The Maricopa Community College District has been using public resources to promote a nearly $1 billion bond measure, soliciting support from employees and the public through its e-mail system and sending senior staff to fund-raisers, a Tribune review has found.
Rep. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, who pushed through laws prohibiting school districts from using taxpayer money to support bond elections, said this week she believes the college district's activities violate state law. She has asked the county attorney to start a criminal investigation.
"They're in blatant violation of campaigning and using community college resources to do that," she said.
But district officials say they've made a genuine effort to keep the bond campaign, which is being run by a political committee, separate from their efforts to explain what the bond would be used for.
Still, they acknowledge that it's hard to keep from voicing their support for a measure they say is desperately needed. And, they say, they have an obligation to get information on the bond to the public.
"How can we say it is not our quest?" said Rufus Glasper, the district's chancellor. "We are part of this district. If they are unsuccessful then we are unsuccessful. I am part of this community."
Proposition 401 would allow the district to sell $951 million in general obligation bonds to build 1.6 million square feet of space at the 10 campuses in Maricopa County, buy land for new campuses, replace obsolete technology, remodel buildings and repair equipment and infrastructure.
The campaign committee, Citizens for the Maricopa County Colleges, has raised more than $461,000 to promote the bond measure, according to campaign finance reports filed with the county elections office. Glasper, who along with other district officials has attended a number of fund-raisers, said the district asked citizens to form the committee.
The Tribune reviewed more than 1,000 e-mails sent or received by district employees related to the bond request obtained under Arizona public records law.
Since February, some executives, faculty and staff members of the district and its colleges sent out e-mails encouraging employees to vote yes on the bond measure, volunteer for phone banks and speakers bureaus, and suggest community meetings where district officials could talk about the bond. At least two colleges formed groups to raise money and promote the bond, and one college set a goal to raise $7,000 from employees to support the campaign.
State law says that it is illegal for a community college district to use its personnel, equipment, materials, buildings and other resources to influence the outcome of an election. The statute also makes it clear that employees’ right to freedom of speech can’t be diminished. Employees can distribute information about the bond during work hours as long they don't encourage people to vote for or against it, and they can campaign for the bond in their off-time, according to the district's legal office.
District officials say a few people who didn't understand the law may have slipped up and sent out questionable e-mails.
"It is important to keep in mind there was a sincere and concerted effort to at least advise all concerned about what isn't allowed," said Pete Kushibab, a lawyer for the district.
But the Tribune's review found more than just a few. In fact, hundreds of e-mails indicate a widespread campaign by employees to win support for the bond.
The activity was enough to raise concerns among some district employees who didn't like getting e-mails at work and some who felt they were being pressured to promote the bond, according to the e-mails reviewed by the Tribune.
"The past few months, we have all been bludgeoned to spill positive messages, present a single voice for this bond effort, and garner support for the bond," wrote Pinny Sheoran, director of Mesa Community College's Business and Industry Institute.
Carl Couch, dean of administrative services at Scottsdale Community College, complained to SCC President Arthur DeCabooter about a fund-raising request from the bond campaign asking employees to give $250 to $500, or whatever they could afford.
"This seems very inappropriate to me to send to a work e-mail account," Couch wrote.
Leah Palmer, who works at MCC's Center for Public Policy and Service, used the district's e-mail system to send endorsement letters for propositions on the November ballot, including 401, to Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker, Mesa Vice Mayor Claudia Walters, Mesa Unified School District Superintendant Debra Duvall, and 13 other members of an advocacy group.
"We urge you to vote YES on Prop. 401, to assure the continued growth and excellence of Mesa Community College, and of all the colleges in the Maricopa Community College system," one Oct. 4 letter states.
On Sept. 15, Sue Isackson, coordinator of community relations for Paradise Valley Community College, sent an e-mail to Jay Thorne, a political consultant with the campaign, asking for $500 for the college's outreach program. On Thursday, Isackson told the Tribune that each college received $500 from the campaign to use however it wanted. Paradise Valley threw a pizza party for citizens and employee volunteers who stumped for the bond off campus, she said.
On Feb. 1, Bernie Ronan, director of MCC's Center for Public Policy and Service, sent an e-mail over the district's system urging MCC President Larry Christiansen to push hard for the bond at public meeting the following day.
"Win the bond," Ronan wrote to Christiansen. "This is about winning votes for our entire bond package."
The public watchdog group, Arizona Tax Research Association, also believes the district is breaking the law. Michael Hunter and Kevin McCarthy say the district is sidestepping the law for its benefit, disguising electioneering as an education or outreach effort. The association spearheaded efforts in 1996 to enact laws prohibiting cities, counties, school districts and community colleges from using public resources to sway elections.
Courts and legal scholars have long frowned on government agencies using taxpayer dollars to advocate ballot measures that result in more taxes because the agency has an unfair advantage.
“If government, with its relatively vast financial resources, access to the media and technical know-how, undertakes a campaign to favor or oppose a measure placed on the ballot, then by so doing government undercuts the very fabric which the constitution weaves to prevent government from stifling the voice of the people," according to a 1989 Florida appellate court ruling, according to a 2004 analysis of an appellate court ruling in the Arizona Law Review. Gray, who requested the investigation on Wednesday after reviewing some of the e-mails, said: "It looks like there's more work to do."
County attorney spokesman Bill FitzGerald said the county attorney hasn't decided whether to investigate.
Glasper said Thursday his office hadn't heard from the county attorney. "Should we receive an inquiry we will respond accordingly and cooperate fully," he said.