City’s website carries political message against property tax cut on ballot

The City of Temple Terrace displays a third party political ad prominently on the front page of its website. The ad opposes Amendment 1, a high-profile referendum measure on this year’s general election ballot in November.

The Guardian discovered the ad on Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend and immediately emailed questions to city manager Charles Stephenson with a copy to mayor Mel Jurado. By Tuesday morning at 7:00 A.M., neither has responded and the ad remained on the front page of the city website.

Among other things, we asked Stephenson who approved the publication of the ad opposing Amendment 1, and what controls the city has in place to make sure that unlawful material is not disseminated by the city.

Amendment 1, if passed, increases the Florida homestead exemption to $75,000 and could  “potentially save homeowners hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” according to the Palm Beach Post.

The homestead exemption, initially $5,000, was created in 1934 to help residents keep their homes during the Great Depression. Voters increased the exemption to $25,000 in 1980, and to $50,000 in a 2008. If the referendum is approved in November, the exemption would rise to a maximum of $75,000.

Metadata indicates that on April 18th at 1:08 P.M., city communications officer Laurie Hayes converted a 13-page paid political ad in the form of a Powerpoint presentation in to a PDF file.  The material came from from the Florida League of Cities. It is unknown when the ad was posted to the city website.

Based on this Florida Division of Elections advisory legal opinion issued in 2012, the city might argue that the city is allowed to disseminate this ad because it does not expressly advocate that voters vote against Amendment 1. How voters in Temple Terrace will view third party political ads with a definite slant being on the city website is a different matter.

Notably, the graphic the city uses to promote the PDF is an edited version of the first slide in that same PDF, but with the disclaimer that identifies it as a third party paid political ad removed. That edited graphic is shown on the left, and is not part of the material the Florida League of Cities has provided on Amendment 1.

Therefore, the removal of the disclaimer was most likely performed by the city itself.

The file name given to the PDF file is “2018_Amendment_1_Information_Handout.pdf” and provides further insights.  The file name appears to indicate that Hayes thinks that if a third party paid political ad supports higher rather than opposes lower revenue for government, then that is “information” that the voters should receive from the city.

Hayes worked for 25 years as a contract communications consultant before joining the city last July. In her LinkedIn profile, Hayes calls herself “a storyteller” and says that she uses her experience “to identify the stories that define my clients and convey them in a manner that captures the attention of the media, general public or other target audience.”

In this case, her “target audience” was Hillsborough county voters. It remains to be seen if her “client” the City of Temple Terrace decides that this was the final chapter of that particular story.

UPDATE 5/30/2018 at 3 P.M.: we received an e-mail from attorney Kraig Conn, General Counsel for the Florida League of Cities. Konn said he read the above article and went on to say:

The article refers to the League’s material as a “paid political ad,” which it is not, under the standards in Chapter 106, Florida Statutes, for “political advertisements.” Rather, the disclaimer made by the League is a simple “Paid for…” disclaimer and not a “Paid political advertisement…” disclaimer. I realize this may have been unintentional on your part as the nuances between the two forms of disclaimer are subtle. I also see you’ve included a link to the League’s website page on Amendment 1: Homestead Exemption, which information is open and available for the public to review. In the League’s view, while some homeowners will see a decrease in assessed values if Amendment 1 passes, the overall effect will be further inequities in an already inequitable ad valorem property tax structure.

The League is a “Florida corporation not for profit,” but not a 501(c) non-profit under federal law. The vast majority of its revenue comes from membership dues from municipalities. While its material may not be a paid political ad, it clearly was intended to influence voters on a political issue. And your tax dollars paid for that material.

As always….the Guardian reports and our readers decide. Like our Facebook page to find out when we publish new stories.

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