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Members of the Corvallis School Board got a primer last week on the fine line between presenting facts about a ballot measure and illegal electioneering.

It's a fine line indeed, and it's a matter of considerable interest to the board and the Corvallis School District, which has referred a $200 million facilities improvement bond measure to voters in the May election.

In the past, it's a distinction that has snagged government officials throughout the mid-valley, who have been whistled for infractions that the state has ruled were improper. (In one notorious case, the city of Corvallis was cited for reporting that a proposed tax had been "unanimously" approved by the City Council; the reasoning apparently was that the word "unanimously" could unduly influence voters who had been asked to pass judgment on the proposed tax.)

In general, school board members learned last week in a briefing from a consultant, paid staff members of the district cannot lobby for passage of the bond measure as part of their official duties. However, elected officials such as the board trustees are free to advocate for the measure, under the theory that voters who find the lobbying unseemly can toss the rascals out at the next election.

The consultant, a Portland man named Jeremy Wright, told the board that district staff members legally can present facts about the bond measure. And Wright's company will be working to support the district's communications plan, work that will include designing fliers and producing videos. Wright's company will be paid up to $37,375 for its efforts.

Here's the sticky question in all of this: At what point does the presentation of facts slide into the realm of advocacy? It's easy to imagine a point where that line is crossed. 

Here are a couple of suggestions to keep that thin line at least somewhat in focus.

First, Brenda Downum, the district's communication coordinator, said district staff will be working with the Oregon Secretary of State's Office to make sure communications are in compliance with state law. If the elections officials in that office give the green light to the communications, that gives the district a so-called "safe harbor" from which to work.

But there's another way to help enforce these boundaries: Let a political action committee handle the bulk of the public relations effort. Vince Adams, the board's chair, said such a committee is just getting started. Allowing the political action committee to shoulder most of the burden of advocating for the measure would help keep district officials from inadvertently crossing the line into illegal electioneering. (If it were our call, we'd also have the committee foot the $37,375 bill for the informational campaign.)

None of this would prevent Downum or Superintendent Ryan Noss from appearing at election forums or before service clubs to lay out the basics of the bond measure, although they would have to be somewhat careful about what they said. (In fact, one of the things we find worrisome about these electioneering rules is that they tend to silence the very people who have the most information about these issues. Also, the rules assume that voters are incapable of judging for themselves the sources of information about an election issue. To that end, even though Noss and Downum are barred from saying something like "Vote for this bond measure" at those public meetings, most audience members will be able to guess their positions.)

Finally, it seems to us that the big question voters will have to decide on this measure is not whether Corvallis school buildings need the investment — in general, they do — but whether the district's request is too rich for their wallets. That's the sort of question that could easily blur the line between information and advocacy. That's why a political action committee may be best suited to answer it. (mm)


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