During a six-week window starting in late February, four Orange County Supervisors running for reelection in 2018 – Michelle Steel, Todd Spitzer, Shawn Nelson and Lisa Bartlett – cumulatively spent approximately $241,000 in taxpayer dollars to send mass mailers to voters.
The mailers are billed by the supervisors as a legal method to tell residents about their policies or actions as county leaders.
Current law prevents elected officials from sending publicly funded mailers within 60 days of an election. According to the Orange County Register, Steel, who has a competitive race, sent at least 115,000 mailers in the weeks before the blackout, using about $33,000 in tax dollars in the process. Prior to this mailer, Steel had sent just one mailer in her three years in office, at a cost of $2,600.
Spitzer spent $34,000 for 135,000 mailers in the six weeks before the blackout period while Nelson, who is running for Congress, sent 301,000 mailers costing taxpayers $77,000.
While all the mailers advertise public events, such as Nelson’s mailings promoting a fishing derby and a “Drug Take Back Day,” the mailings prominently list the elected officials’ names.
Bob Stern, a government ethics expert and author of the 1974 Political Reform Act, called the mailings “public financing of campaigns for incumbents.”
Shortly after the deadline passed, county supervisors voted unanimously to approve new restrictions on their mailers to include such things as seeking legal advice from county counsel and prohibiting the names of officials from appearing on the public mailers.