Mark Andrew’s free ad (courtesy of Hennepin County)

Yesterday, a video was published by Hennepin County’s YouTube page:

It’s a five-minute glowing retrospective of all the things that went into the Community Works program, and specifically the Midtown Greenway project – different government groups coming together with the community to build something great.  As coincidence would have it, one of the architects of this project was current mayoral candidate Mark Andrew.  It’s surprising that Hennepin County would publish such an obvious piece of political advertising just weeks before the election, though surely the County will file an independent expenditure report, due 10 days prior to the election.

According to Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, it’s the 20-year anniversary of the project, so it deserves to suddenly be on everyone’s radar:

 

 

It should be noted that “Friends of Peter McLaughlin” and “McLaughlin for Mayor” contributed $500 each to Andrew’s campaign in early May.  It’s surprising that McLaughlin asks whether the County should not promote the project, considering the video’s privacy settings are set to keep the video off of Hennepin County’s main YouTube page (or be found via YouTube search).  As of this writing, it can only be found if you have the exact URL (the video was originally found via a post on McLaughlin’s Facebook page).  Partially due to the privacy settings, it is impossible to know whether anyone else has posted a link to this video.

In the video, there are past clips of Andrew, as well as a couple of soundbites of him from the present.  One of Mark’s quotes from the video:

“It does give them hope, and that’s what role local governments should play is to create innovation that brings hope in results to communities and if we take a leap of faith as a community with our attendant neighborhoods and believe that we can create something positive by working together, then we will.”

That’s a nice feel-good quote – and it comes right near the end of the video, after 4 minutes of interviews with city and county officials about how this is such a wonderful project.

The video also is consistent with the messaging put forth by Andrew’s own campaign.  By drawing on quotes from city and county officials, as well as community groups, the video subtly emphasizes one of Andrew’s alleged strengths – getting different levels of government to work together.

Overall, I think whoever is behind the creation of this heartwarming video (and its questionable timing) should be investigated for political corruption.  Hennepin County officials should not be able to so blatantly tamper with the election of Minneapolis’ next mayor.

UPDATE (October 21, 2013): I decided to write to the MN State Auditor about this – here’s the main body of my email:

Hello – I’m writing to you with concerns that a video published on October 16th by Hennepin County’s YouTube page is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars, and is also designed to act as a political ad for Mark Andrew.  I do not know who commissioned the video, but I would appreciate your office looking into it.  The timing of the publication is my primary concern, as we are now just weeks before the Minneapolis mayoral election.

Here was their initial response:

Campaign finance issues are normally handled by the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board. They are very helpful. Their website is:http://www.cfboard.state.mn.us/

Their Executive Director’s phone and email is:

They went on to list Gary Goldsmith’s contact information, so I asked him about the creation of this video, with the same body of the email I pasted above – here was his response:

Hennepin County elections are not under the jurisdiction of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, so my comments are general and without authority as to this race.

However, Minnesota does not have electioneering communication laws, which would require disclosure of any communication mentioning a candidate within 60 days of the election.  The Campaign Finance Board recommended such a law in the last legislative session, but it was stripped from the bill.

Lacking an electioneering communication law, the only communications that are subject to regulation and disclosure when made by an association that is not primarily organized to influence elections are independent expenditures.  Under Minnesota’s independent expenditure statute, the communication must specifically advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate.  Thus a communication like the one you pointed our would not be an independent expenditure.  The Campaign Finance Board also advocated for a broader independent expenditure law but that was also stripped out of the 2013 legislation.

The Board is likely to make recommendations for better disclosure again in 2013.  Without stronger laws, there will be much communication that is intended to influence elections but is not subject to regulation and disclosure.  The preceding statement is not intended to suggest that the Greenway video that you submitted was done to influence an election.  It doesn’t mention an election and it includes many community officials and others involved in the Greenway project.

So, Mr. Goldsmith has essentially stated that he has no authority over this election, and that the existing laws on the book aren’t all that great anyway.  To me, this could be a much larger problem in the future in Minneapolis, considering it’s recent history as a one-party town, a concept which could slowly erode due to RCV.

This morning, I received another response, this one from Nancy Bode, Assistant Legal Counsel at the Office of the State Auditor:

The State Auditor forwarded to me your concerns about a Midtown Greenway video.  Your primary concern appears to be the timing of the video’s release, given the upcoming mayor’s race in Minneapolis.  As a result, the State Auditor provided you with contact information for the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board.

Minnesota’s statutes govern the use of public websites and
publications.  Under Minn. Stat. § 10.60, photographs of officials performing functions related to their office are specifically allowed. Public websites and publications may also include “press releases, proposals, policy positions and other information directly related to the legal functions, duties, and jurisdiction of a public official or organization.”  The law also provides:  “There is no limitation on photographs, Webcasts, archives of Webcasts, and audio or video files that facilitate access to information or services or inform the public about the duties and obligations of the office or that are intended to promote trade or tourism.”  Counties also have broad powers to promote, advertise, improve and develop the county’s economic resources.  See, e.g., Minn. Stat. § 375.83.  As a result, this Office will not be taking further action on your concerns.  If you believe Minnesota’s statutes should be more restrictive, you could contact your legislators.

So there you have it – apparently this is all totally legal at the moment, so if you work for the state of MN, Hennepin County, or even the city of Minneapolis, remember to leverage your job to support your favorite candidate.  Don’t be shy – our outdated statutes are on your side!  In the meantime, I’ve contacted my legislators to try to get something on the books so this doesn’t happen next time (I also asked about increasing the campaign finance disclosure requirements – it’s amazing that we won’t see them until 10 days before the election).

One thought on “Mark Andrew’s free ad (courtesy of Hennepin County)”

  1. The second response from the Auditor is probably the same rationale the Dayton Administration uses to orient agency communications toward his re-election through the use of “betterMN” hashtags and other materials that dovetail with his campaign themes. It’s unquestionably meant to bolster a campaign, but, as the two officials said, it doesn’t mention any election and government has the right to communicate to its citizens, so it’s not running afoul of any laws. Should it, or should Hennepin County’s video? That’s up for debate.

    The line between official communication and election communication is a thousand shades of gray and can be twisted in almost any direction. Some Board and ALJ rulings have clarified the issue a little, but it’s never as simple as yes or no.

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