Ohio auditor explains tax levy campaign rules after Bellbrook school court case

Keith Faber says public officials urging people to vote a certain way must do it “on your own dime, on your own time.”

Auditor of State Keith Faber met with local city and township officials Thursday to explain how government and school officials can and can’t communicate to the public about tax levies.

The bottom line: “You can’t use public money to ask the public for more of their money,” Faber said. “And our rule is if it’s an elected official or public employee, (do it) on your own dime, on your own time.”

Faber said his office generally puts government actions into three categories, in order of severity, and distinguishes between what actions may be genuinely malicious, or just due to sloppy accounting.

The meeting originally was intended to include local school board officials, but those officials were not invited due to a clerical error, Greene County officials said Friday. A separate meeting will be held for school boards at a later date, officials said.

The meetings come in the wake of criminal charges brought against Bellbrook-Sugarcreek schools’ superintendent and several board members, who were accused of misusing public funds to support the passage of a May 2019 school levy, including allegedly authorizing district funds to pay for newsletters promoting the levy.

Bellbrook Superintendent Doug Cozad and former board member Liz Betz each took an “Alford plea” of guilty for one count of dereliction of duty, and then-Bellbrook school board President David Carpenter and former board member Virginia Slouffman were both found guilty of dereliction of duty, and not guilty of a charge of illegal transaction of public funds. Carpenter has since appealed the ruling.

Ohio law has long held that taxpayer money cannot be used by a government or school to advocate for the passage of a tax levy. However, providing factual information to voters about taxes, budgets and city or school news is allowed. Newsletters paid for by public entities, particularly school boards, have long walked a fine line between sharing positive school information, which is allowed, and openly campaigning to vote yes, which is not.

It has been common for groups of local residents, some of them employees of the school or city seeking a tax levy, to contribute their own money to pay for mailers advocating that people vote yes.

Criminal charges against public officials for misuse of public funds related to levy campaigns are rare, state-level school organizations told the Dayton Daily News last year when the Bellbrook case was filed. In the wake of the ruling, school boards and some cities have shied away from any form of tax levy communication with their voters, which may be swinging the pendulum back a bit too far, Faber said.

“Elected officials have special dispensation (to speak) even though they get some money. They might get paid for a meeting here or there,” Faber said. “But they have a First Amendment right — I would argue a First Amendment obligation — to talk about how they acted, and why they put something on the ballot.”

The key is not using any public money or resources to do so.

“This just kind of clarified it,” said Beavercreek City Council member Don Adams on Friday. “As an elected official, if we put (a levy) on the ballot, we can say what we need to say to support our decision. Being able to articulate that to our constituents is, I think, important.”

City and school district employees are more restricted in how they talk about levies compared to elected officials. For example, Faber said a school board president can go to a Rotary Club meeting during a normal work day and speak freely in favor of the ballot initiative, whereas a city employee is generally limited to factual information at that time. If a public employee wants to offer their opinion on a tax issue, they are encouraged to take leave, and must use no government resources while doing it, Faber said.

Faber said that his request to the public is “if you see something, say something.”

“You can make a complaint to us anonymously,” he said. “If it’s something we don’t have primary jurisdiction of, we will forward that to the appropriate other entities.”

Report fraud to the State Auditor at 1-866-Fraud-OH, or online at ohioauditor.gov/fraud.

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