Project Connect’s tax-funded urban-rail-campaign ad blitz raises red flags14 July 2014
For months, Project Connect (with public tax-based funding largely funneled through Capital Metro) has been conducting an ad blitz with the clear de facto objective of soliciting voters’ support for the widely discussed urban rail bond funding measure expected to be placed on the ballot this coming November.
Within the last couple of weeks, this political ad campaign has been expanded to include television advertising and, this past Friday (July 11th), a front-page ad in the Austin American Statesman. For example, here’s one of Project Connect’s 30-second TV commercials, titled Learn more about Project Connect: Urban Rail.
Here’s the text of this obviously promotional TV pitch:
110 people a day move to Central Texas, making Austin traffic even worse.
But urban rail could help. The newest proposal from Project Connect, urban rail will arrive every 10 to 15 minutes, seven days a week and feature 16 stations and four park & rides.
It will connect the Convention Center, downtown businesses, entertainment areas, the new medical school, UT, and lots of neighborhoods, and would be part of a growing system with connections to bus and commuter rail.
Urban rail could expand to serve even more of Austin in the future. Learn more at Project Connect dot com
As usual, Project Connect blithely bulldozes forward, willing to discard the decades of work and tens of millions of dollars that have been invested in identifying the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as the pre-eminent candidate for Austin’s urban rail starter line. They continue to ignore the widespread barrage of community bafflement, criticism, and anger provoked by their arrogant, “damn-the-torpedoes” Blitzkrieg, aimed at rewarding real estate developer interests and the UT administration’s East Campus expansion aims, instead of addressing the true mobility needs of the Austin community.
With this ad initiative, Project Connect, Capital Metro, and possibly other members of the Project Connect consortium seem to be skating very close to the edge of what may be legally permissible (and definitely over the edge of what could be construed as political abuse of public tax funding). Here’s an excerpt relevant to “Unlawful Use Of Public Funds for Political Advertising”, quoted from the Texas Election Code, Title 15. Regulating Political Funds and Campaigns, Chapter 255. Regulating Political Advertising and Campaign Communications:
Sec. 255.003. UNLAWFUL USE OF PUBLIC FUNDS FOR POLITICAL ADVERTISING. (a) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.
(b) Subsection (a) does not apply to a communication that factually describes the purposes of a measure if the communication does not advocate passage or defeat of the measure.
(b-1) An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for a communication describing a measure if the communication contains information that:
(1) the officer or employee knows is false; and
(2) is sufficiently substantial and important as to be reasonably likely to influence a voter to vote for or against the measure.
(c) A person who violates Subsection (a) or (b-1) commits an offense. An offense under this section is a Class A misdemeanor.
(d) It is an affirmative defense to prosecution for an offense under this section or the imposition of a civil penalty for conduct under this section that an officer or employee of a political subdivision reasonably relied on a court order or an interpretation of this section in a written opinion issued by:
(1) a court of record;
(2) the attorney general; or
(3) the commission.
(e) On written request of the governing body of a political subdivision that has ordered an election on a measure, the commission shall prepare an advance written advisory opinion as to whether a particular communication relating to the measure does or does not comply with this section.
Project Connect’s aggressive political campaigning — using taxpayers’ money to try to persuade voters to approve more taxpayer money to finance the highly controversial (and, in the view of many, flawed and wasteful) urban rail proposal — has disturbed and outraged many citizens within the Austin community. On July 11th, Austinites for United Rail Action (AURA) — a group mainly composed of young professionals that support urban rail but dislike Project Connect’s proposal — issued a public statement, addressed to the the Capital Metro board and titled “AURA Questions the Project Connect Marketing Campaign“.
Here’s the basic content of that statement:
As you know, Project Connect has been running — and continues to run — an aggressive marketing campaign on behalf of your policy efforts. While some advertisements seem intended to convey basic information, others (such as the radio campaign) seem like political advocacy on behalf of the Regional Mobility Plan’s controversial recommendations.
As taxpayers and transit advocates, we are concerned about the expenditure of public money for this campaign-related advertising. While the words “vote for the bond package” are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement.
It is possible that we are misunderstanding these efforts. We are hoping that your body can answer the following questions:
1. What entity is paying for existing Project Connect-related advertising?
2. How large is the purchase and how long will it last?
3. Who determines the content and themes featured in the advertising?
4. What standards has the Board provided to ensure that advertisements do not cross over into advocacy and remain firmly within the engagement realm?
Thank you for your attention to the matter. While Austinites may disagree on the best path forward for transit, we all agree that using taxpayer funds for political campaigning is unethical.
While these questions deserve answers, Austin Rail Now fully expects that AURA’s objections will be met with claims by Capital Metro and Project Connect that, by their own interpretation, no laws are being violated by the ad campaign. But it’s one thing to split legal hairs over legal violations, and quite another to commit a breach of faith and violate public trust over such a fractious and contentious issue. The alibi that this is merely an “educational” campaign is evidently intended for (1) the Project Connect faithful and (2) the hopelessly stupid.
And, by heavily investing tax dollars in commercial media advertising buys to advance this ballot measure, is Project Connect attempting to cultivate friendly media attention and treatment?
Pouring tax dollars into this ad blitz, aimed at subsidizing the dreams of a small assortment of private developers and the UT administration, discredits Project Connect and legitimate public transport planning as well. Community leaders and activists concerned with the future of democratic and fair process in this city should demand a stop to it — now. ■