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Legal, ethical questions persist over Project Connect’s ad blitz for urban rail plan

6 August 2014
Project Connect campaign ad as seen on a Yahoo.com news page in July 2014. Screenshot by ARN.

Project Connect campaign ad as seen on a Yahoo.com news page in July 2014. Screenshot by ARN.

More questions continue to be raised about Project Connect’s tax-funded ad blitz promoting its urban rail plan, almost certainly destined to be placed on the ballot for a vote this November. While this media campaign has intensified into a vigorous television barrage in recent weeks, Project Connect’s online ads — such as the example from a Yahoo.com News page at the top of this post — have been peppering webpages on the Internet for months

As we’ve noted in our previous article on this controversy (Project Connect’s tax-funded urban-rail-campaign ad blitz raises red flags), on July 11th, the pro-rail group Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA) issued a public statement, addressed to the board of Capital Metro (Austin’s public transportation authority), that questioned the agency’s “aggressive marketing campaign”. The stated noted that “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.

Kyle Keahey, Project Lead for Project Connect’s “Central Corridor”, responded that the ads were ” educational materials” that “are fully compliant with election laws”. He also disclosed that the ads were supported by a budget of more than $157,000. Perhaps small by the mega-million standards of a public transport project, but far more than is available to community organizations questioning Project Connect’s program. And it’s money derived from public tax revenues.

In response, AURA, in a letter from the co-chair officers of its Urban Rail Working Group, reiterated its criticism and concern, particularly “the ethics of spending taxpayer dollars on the political campaign for Project Connect’s urban rail proposal.” AURA focused on the rather suspicious timing for the ad campaign to end:

You also note that the ad buy will conclude on August 5th, two days before City Council is expected to place Project Connect’s road-rail bond measure on the November ballot, at which point the ads would presumably become subject to Texas law regulating the use of public funds for political advertising (Tex. Election Code § 255.003). This information appears to confirm our impression that this is a political advertising campaign, not an “educational and project awareness effort.”

AURA’s letter concludes with a stinging rebuke that seems to convey much of the anger simmering in the Austin community:

You explain that your legal counsel has verified that the advertising campaign is “fully compliant with election laws.” We are confident in your attorneys’ legal opinion on this matter. Unfortunately, we are much less confident that you understand that spending taxpayer dollars promoting a controversial urban rail proposal is unethical and erodes public trust.

We appreciate that Project Connect is “committed to conducting an open, transparent, and legally compliant process.” In the future, we hope you will commit to an ethical one as well.

At least one major media outlet has taken note of the controversy. Time-Warner Cable News, in an Aug. 2nd story titled Urban Rail Ad Campaign Under Fire, noted that, after two months on “Austin airwaves”, the ads promoting urban rail were “wrapping up” … “just as city leaders are about to ask voters to support a tax increase that would help pay for the billion-dollar rail.”

And the reporter turned to AURA for comment:

“It’s very clear that this is a political campaign,” AURA’s Marcus Denton said.

Denton questions the timing of the ads, which all end Wednesday.

“The fact that they are pulling the ads off the air immediately before they’d be subject to election law about ballot measures is very suspicious,” he said.

Denton is with a group that supports urban rail, but not the route leaders chose. He said going to Austin Community College’s Highland Campus will not guarantee the riders needed to support the system.

The report further noted that “Capital Metro and the city of Austin are paying for a combined 20 percent, while the other 80 percent is coming from a federal grant.” It also quoted a representative of the rightwing Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), criticizing the channeling of public funds for the “media blitz”.

“Taxpayers are paying money to the federal government, which is then turning around and lobbying Austinites to support more taxpayer spending” said the TPPF spokesman. “That’s not appropriate.”

In effect, in what seems a somewhat desperate attempt to push the envelope of what’s permissible “educational” activity by a public transit agency, Project Connect may be poisoning the well, so to speak, for more legitimate informational and educational efforts on behalf of more worthy urban rail projects in the future.

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