In 2015, the elected Board of Directors of the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District awarded two no-bid contracts for a total of $80,000 in public funds to a San Francisco-based campaign consulting firm. In 2016, under the authority of the second contract, that firm coordinated with the Park District to design and distribute a four-page folded full-color glossy mail piece about a ballot measure to authorize a “Special Tax” on property owners to fund the Park District. It is Measure E on the November 8, 2016 ballot. (See the arguments for and against Measure E at Taxpayer Arguments Against Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District Measure E Special Tax on November 2016 Ballot.)
This mailer is portrayed as an “informational” communication because it does not expressly advocate a position on the ballot measure. (See it here: Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District Mailer to Local Voters – July 2016.) Of course, a campaign consultant can design a communications strategy to influence voters without explicitly telling them how to vote. The Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association has identified and compiled substantial evidence to show that the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District has improperly used public funds to influence registered voters to vote YES for its proposed Special Tax.
Most people would recognize the pictures, text, and graphic design of the mailer as a message to support the Special Tax. Mailer content seems to have been carefully developed to avoid outright telling voters to Vote YES while reassuring voters that the Park District would spend their tax money appropriately if they happened to Vote YES. For example, the mailer tells registered voters that the Park District’s Oversight Committee since 2004 has given a “stamp of approval” to how the Park District uses certain tax proceeds. This is not technically or legally what that Oversight Committee does.
More revealing about the motivation for the mailer are emails among Park District board members, Park District staff, and contracted professional campaign firm TBWB Strategies (with its affiliate TBW Media) about mailer development and design. Emails cited below show that the publicly-funded mailer was meant to influence registered voters to support the Park District’s Special Tax on the November 8, 2016 ballot.
|Evidence||Date||Evidence That Mailer Wasn’t Informational But Intended to Influence Voters|
|Exhibit A||May 31||A Park District management employee asks TBW Media employees for a conference call for “timing and information needed for the mailer going out after June 7 primaries” It was strategically critical for voters to receive the so-called “informational” mailer after the June election (when the Special Tax was not on the ballot) and before the November election (when the Special Tax is on the ballot).|
|Exhibit B||June 9||A TBWB employee provides a Park District management employee “with the timeline that I was thinking for the mailer” that indicates a “Piece mails to all registered voters” on July 5.
The choice to send the Special Tax mailer to all registered voters in the Park District contrasts with the practice of the Park District to mail its genuine informational communications to all RESIDENTIAL CUSTOMERS, including those who are not registered voters. Each year, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District produces and distributes what it calls an “award-winning” catalog of programs called “Let’s Go Outdoors” to residents, presumably because the Park District serves ALL residents, not just those who are registered to vote.
Park District staff and consultants were aware of this catalog because they discussed it in their email exchanges and even included a reference to the catalog in the mailer itself. Notice the catalog is for “our community” and not limited to “our registered voters.”
|Exhibit C||June 14||An email from a Park District management employee to the five Park District board members entitled “Text for Upcoming Mailer” states the following: “As we recently mentioned, our consultants at TBWB are drafting another mailer to go out to voters in advance of the November election.”|
|Exhibit D||June 27||An email from a Park District board member to a Park District management employee includes the following among “suggestions” for the mailer: “Could we include the fact that there is citizen oversight and that the funds MUST stay local stand out more? either by placing it higher up or making it bold/stand out. perhaps in a pull out?”|
|Exhibit E||June 27||An email from a Park District board member to a Park District management employee states this about the draft mail piece: “I believe there is A LOT of support for preserving oak trees/woodland, as demonstrated by the efforts to stop the Monterey-Salinas Transit’s proposed transit center on former Fort Ord. And this may help us connect with voters in the northern portion of the MPRPD (Marina & Seaside) as these two habitats are very prevalent there.”|
|Exhibit F||June 27||A TBWB employee sends these comments to a Park District management employee (copied to another TBWB employee):
I’m a bit unsure of how to incorporate the Maritime Chaparral or Oaks Woodland information. Given the reach of this piece (all registered voters) I want to make sure we are painting broad strokes and not getting too far down in the the (sic) weeds of specific projects or parks.
There are countless great projects, parks and initiatives that you guys can highlight, but given the limited real estate of this piece, I want to make sure we keep the message high level.
In terms of drawing more attention to the fiscal accountability points, we need to be careful. If we are obviously highlighting them, one could argue that we are advocating for the measure by over emphasizing what a great investment it is. Given this is a publicly-funded communication, we must stay 100% informational and thus I think it is important that we provide the fact that there are indeed fiscal accountability requirements in place but don’t tout them.
|Exhibit G||June 27||A Park District management employee replies to the TBWB employee comments: “Absolutely makes sense and I concur. Let’s go with your game plan on para 4 and remain silent on the fiscal accountability. Funding for local and regional parks is just fine.“|
|Exhibit H||June 27||A Park District management employee provides a TBWB employee with comments from a Park District board member, including “The documents needs (sic) to be offered in Spanish.” The email does not explain why a Spanish version of this mailer to registered voters is needed, but legitimate informational communications from the Park District (including the annual Let’s Go Outdoors program guide) had not been provided in Spanish or other languages.|
|Exhibit I||June 28||A TBWB employee expresses his skepticism to a Park District management employee about the return on investment for a Spanish language version of the mailer: “Do you have an in-house translator? What we could do is design a Spanish version and post it on your website but not mail it. The mailed English version could have a footer that reads (in Spanish) ‘For more information in Spanish visit www.MPRPD.org”. The cost of printing and mailing Spanish versions of the flyer is really not worth the return.” The email does not explain what “return” is being evaluated.|
|Exhibit J||July 1||A Park District board member asks for analysis from a Park District management employee: “…I think this flyer should be in Spanish as well. I wonder, have we ever gone to the effort to translate our public-facing documents? Is it worth it? I do not have statistics on how many people in our district speak Spanish, so perhaps this is not a very impactful thing to do, but my hunch is that it is. What are your thoughts on this?” The email does not explain what “impactful” means.|
|Exhibit K||July 3||A Park District management employee replies to the Park District board member (and copies two other Park District management employees): “Absolutely agree with you on Spanish version. TBWB has been contacted and they are looking into this. We will report back to you and the team once we have more info/response from TBWB.”|
|Exhibit L||July 6||Confirming that the Park District has not translated its legitimately informational materials into Spanish, a board member expresses an opinion to a Park District management employee: “In the future I think we should make sure to make translation a part of our printed materials like this.”|
COORDINATOR OF MAILER RECEIVED A NO-BID CONTRACT BASED ON CAMPAIGN EXPERIENCE
The elected Board of Directors of the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District voted on January 5, 2015 to award a $35,000 contract (with a maximum of $3500 in out-of-pocket expense reimbursement) with the San Francisco-based campaign consulting firm TBWB Strategies for “professional consultant services related to a potential benefit assessment renewal” from January 6, 2015 to July 4, 2015. (Work under this contract was referred to by the Park District as “Phase I” after it subsequently awarded a second contract to TBWB Strategies as “Phase II.”)
According to the staff report, “The current Benefit Assessment shall fund this project.” In other words, the current Special Tax would pay to get ready for the next Special Tax. Some of the activities listed for TBWB under this contract:
- create and analyze a scientific voter opinion survey that accurately models MPRPD’s likely electorate, potential ballot language, and key issues and messages
- create messaging materials for MPRPD, including a sample handout, FAQ’s, a Power Point presentation and content for the Park District website
- analyze the results of direct stakeholder engagement and recommend any changes in timing or approach
- identify key audiences for direct targeting and engagement, including local officials, civic groups, staff and park users, and customize messaging as needed for individual groups
- answer “tough questions” that emerge during the period of stakeholder outreach
- analyze the results of direct stakeholder engagement and recommend any changes in timing or approach
***TBWB Strategies obviously did not fulfill the terms and conditions of this contract, because it never engaged the Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association to answer our tough questions!”***
This was a no-bid contract; in other words, the Park District did not formally advertise the contractual opportunity with a notice for a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or a Request for Proposals (RFP). The staff report provided to the board acknowledged the existence of at least nine firms that performed such work, but it recommended TBWB Strategies. “Staff contacted two firms. One…did not provide MPRPD a response. The other firm was TBWB.”
Was this legal? The State of California has not established a competitive bidding threshold amount for the professional service contracts of Recreation and Parks Districts, and until the February 17, 2016 Park District board meeting, the Park District apparently did not have a formal Professional Consultant Selection and Purchasing Policy. At that meeting, the board unanimously adopted a selection procedure for professional services in excess of $25,000 that includes an RFQ/RFP or an RFP and review and ranking of the proposals under specific criteria.
To support its recommendation of TBWB Strategies, the January 5, 2016 staff report listed successful bond measure and tax measure campaigns managed by TBWB Strategies on behalf of Monterey County governments and park districts in Northern California. It also noted that “TBWB’s parent firm is the campaign consultant for Senator Bill Monning, Assemblymember Mark Stone and County Supervisor Jane Parker.” Park District jurisdiction falls within the districts of these three elected officials. The staff report did NOT indicate if TBWB Strategies had ever performed campaign consulting services for board members of the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District.
Here is the staff report, the contract, and the list of tasks to be performed under the Phase I contract:
On July 6, 2015, the board amended that contract to extend the deadline through August 31, 2015 “only to allow for the completion of the Scope of Work” at no additional cost:
Also on July 6, 2015, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District board approved another no-bid contract for $45,000 (with a maximum of $3500 in out-of-pocket expense reimbursement) with TBWB Strategies for Phase II of professional consultant services from July 5, 2015 to March 1, 2016 related to replacement of benefit assessment funding. Like the first contract (for Phase I), this contract was awarded by the Park District board without consideration of other proposals. The staff report justified not bidding the contract because the district should “continue to work with the same consulting firm to eliminate the time loss, ramp up and cost of starting with a new consultant.”
Here is the staff report, the contract, and the list of tasks to be performed under the Phase II contract:
The board also authorized the General Manager to amend the term of the contract to add an additional nine (9) months, through the end of calendar year 2016, if the survey results indicated a 2017 or 2018 ballot measure “is advised.” In February 2016, the Phase II contract was subsequently extended through August 31, 2016.
WHO PAID FOR PRINTING AND POSTAGE FOR THE MAIL PIECES?
According to the 2015-07-06 Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District – TBWB Strategies Phase II – Staff Report, the consulting contracts between the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District and TBWB Strategies did NOT include expenses for the following:
- informational brochures, direct mail, and other paid advertising (estimated to range between $16,614 and $18,668 not including postage)
- paid online/social media engagement (estimated at $40,000 for 8 weeks)
- election costs ($4-6 per voter, for a range of $260,000 to $390,000)
Instead, these costs were included in the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District 2016-17 Budget. According to the 2016-17 Budget – Staff Report, FY2016-17 expenditures are about 9.6% above estimated expenditures for FY2015-16, due in large part to anticipated expenditures for potential Board seats (2) and community facilities district elections to be held in November 2016. In addition, “the FY16-17 budget formally adopted by the Board on 5/2/16 stated that funds were to be used to pursue a Community Facilities District. The informational mailer was part of the CFD expenditures as outlined in the TBWB contract.”
The Park District budget itself indicates “a $418,481 increase (8.4 percent) above FY2015-16 year-end budget estimate of $4,968,224 and $413,205 more than estimated revenues. The increase is attributed to expenditures for the potential Board seat(s) and community facilities district elections. Staff proposes to cover these excess expenses by using funds from the District’s reserves.” It is not said if the Park District will restore the reserve fund with Special Tax proceeds if voters approve the Special Tax or how the Park District will restore the reserve fund if voters reject the Special Tax.
Also mentioned in the budget, “The proposed FY2016-17 Administration budget of $1,759,405 is an increase of $388,533 over the FY2015-16 year-end budgeted amount of $1,370,872, primarily attributed to the required funding for potential elections for two Director seats and the community facilities district.” See the chart below.
At some point, the Park District has to reimburse TBWB Strategies for the expense of postage for the mailer. Postage was directly paid to the US Postal Service by TBW Media, as shown by the pre-sorted standard indicia on the mailer.