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Press Release


Contact:

Matt Bach
Director of Media Relations
Michigan Municipal League
(734) 669-6317
mbach@mml.org; www.mml.org

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Jan. 26, 2016

Roseville, Algonac, Dowagiac Officials Are Among Plaintiffs in Federal Lawsuit Against 'Gag Order'

Lawsuit: New Law Violates 1st and 14th Amendments in U.S. Constitution

LANSING, Mich. – City officials from Roseville, Algonac, and Dowagiac are among 18 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed today in Detroit charging that a “gag order” provision in Public Act 269 is unconstitutional and asking that the law be overturned.

Subsection 57(3) of Public Act 269, which amended Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act, prohibits elected and appointed public and school officials from providing factual information to voters about local ballot measures within 60 days of an election. State law already prohibits governmental officials from using tax dollars to advocate for or against a proposal. This new gag order goes far beyond what is constitutionally permissible.

“It’s an absolute gag order preventing public officials from addressing their constituents and residents about matters of local concern,” said Scott Eldridge, an attorney with Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone who has filed the lawsuit against Public Act 269. “It’s so overly broad and vague that it penalizes public officials with a crime if they speak in even an objectively neutral tone about ballot issues.”

Named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the following Michigan Municipal League members: Roseville Mayor Robert Taylor, Algonac City Manager Douglas Alexander, and Dowagiac Mayor Donald Lyons. All three cities have ballot issues in the March 8 election and are currently under the 60-day gag order imposed by the law.

“This law strips away or brings into question the legality of many of the most effective means of communication that we have traditionally used,” Lyons said, whose community is asking voters to change the city charter to have its clerk be appointed instead of elected. “For a community that values transparency, the removal of some of our most effective means of communicating with our electorate by a poorly crafted and confusing piece of last-minute legislation is simply wrong. It is a sad day when the state Legislature tells me that I can no longer communicate effectively with the people I was elected to serve.”

Algonac is requesting voters to allow the city to enter a 20-year lease agreement with the US Coast Guard for 200 feet of Riverfront Park dockage in exchange for the Coast Guard repairing at its cost the seawall at that location, the lawsuit states.

“Under the current law we can’t mail any information to voters about this lease agreement with the Coast Guard. For example, we would have normally explained a ballot issue like this in our quarterly newsletter that is mailed to about 1,900 city households,” Alexander said. “Our newsletter would have just stated factual, objective and neutral information to our residents. But we can no longer do that.”

Roseville residents are being asked to vote on a ballot question over whether to renew a millage to equip, staff, operate and train personnel for the city’s Advanced Life Support Emergency Medical Service System, according to the lawsuit.

Taylor said he planned to inform voters about the ballot question and give them factual information, such as the history and nature of the local EMS system, the cost of the millage renewal, and the intended use of the funds. But he can’t communicate any of those things now through mass mailings, radio, TV or pre-recorded telephone messages as he intended.

“These are the most effective means of informing the largest number of our residents, including those without regular access to the internet, such as our elderly citizens, our many linguistically diverse residents, and those in rural areas,” Taylor said. “This unconstitutional law prevents us from giving voters the information they expect from us in order to make informed decisions.”

These three cities are among more than 100 school districts and local governments with issues on the March 8 ballot that are already being harmed by the new law. Specifically, the law bans local officials or employees of local governments and school districts from using public resources to communicate with voters by giving them factual information about a ballot measure through radio, television, mass mailing or prerecorded telephone messages in the final two months of an election.

The result will be that uninformed voters are likely to first learn about complex matters when they look at ballots on election day without having received basic information such as what the proposal is about, how much it will save or cost them, and what the consequences of a yes or no vote are. In addition to being unconstitutional, the law will also negatively affect local credit ratings and result in higher costs for local taxpayers, Moody’s Investors Services has warned.

When he signed Senate Bill 571 into law on Jan. 6, Gov. Rick Snyder agreed Section 57 went too far and called for a fix. However, only one legislative hearing has been held so far, and legislation discussed at the hearing—House Bill 5219—allows only the date of the election and the 100-word ballot language to be sent to voters by local officials. Bipartisan bills to repeal the unconstitutional language in Public Act 269 haven’t received even one hearing.

The Michigan Department of State, over a three-year period, found only five valid complaints where local entities violated the state law forbidding them from advocating for a ballot issue.

Eldridge, of Miller Canfield, said the draconian language added to Senate Bill 571 at the last minute and passed in the middle of the night without a public hearing violates both the First and the 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. He added that the vagueness of the law’s language essentially chills public officials’ right to free speech.

The public officials listed on the lawsuit are: Roseville Mayor Robert Taylor; Algonac City Manager Douglas R. Alexander; Dowagiac Mayor Donald Lyons; Tuscola County Commissioner Matthew Bierlein; New Haven Community Schools Superintendent Todd R. Robinson; Riverview Community Schools School Board President Gary O’Brien and Superintendent Russell Pickell; Tecumseh School Board President Kimberly Amstutz-Wild and Superintendent Gary O’Brien; Waterford School District School Board President Robert Seeterlin and Superintendent Keith Wunderlich; Goodrich Area Schools Superintendent Michelle Imbrunone; Clinton Community Schools Superintendent David P. Pray; Byron Area Schools School Board President Amy Lawrence and Superintendent Patricia Murphy-Alderman; Warren Consolidated School District Superintendent Robert D. Livernois; Lansing School District Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul; and Stephen Purchase.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and the State of Michigan are listed as defendants.

Robert Taylor et al v. Ruth Johnson and the State of Michigan was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, based in Detroit.

For more information contact the League’s Matt Bach at mbach@mml.org or (734) 669-6317.

About Michigan Municipal League:
Michigan Municipal League is dedicated to making Michigan’s communities better by thoughtfully innovating programs, energetically connecting ideas and people, actively serving members with resources and services, and passionately inspiring positive change for Michigan’s greatest centers of potential: its communities. The League advocates on behalf of its member communities in Lansing, Washington, D.C., and the courts; provides educational opportunities for elected and appointed municipal officials; and assists municipal leaders in administering services to their communities through League programs and services. Learn more at mml.org.

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