Ad to promote Scarborough school budget violated law

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SCARBOROUGH — An ad in a local publication taken out by the school district in an effort to promote voter approval of the school budget violated campaign disclosure laws, according to a Maine Ethics Commission attorney.

The ad, printed in the June 8 Scarborough Leader, is a two-page spread containing information about where and when to vote, a budget summary, the tax impact, and expressly urges residents to “Vote yes.” It urges readers to review the budget on the town’s website. 

The violation lies in the fact there was no information on who paid for the ad, which town officials are calling an “oversight.” 

According to Benjamin Dyer, an attorney with the Maine Ethics Commission, the ad is expressly advocating for the approval of a referendum and should have contained a statement with the name and address of the organization paying for the communication. 

If the ad expressly signals a direction in how to vote, costs more than $500 and is printed in a town with a population of more than 15,000, it is a violation not to include a disclosure statement, Dyer said in explaining the law. 

According to Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, the ad cost $910 and was “an effort to improve communication and in response to many community requests for a budget mailer. (W)e (the school district) decided to purchase advertisement space in the Scarborough Leader.”

The money came from the advertising budget line, which is used for public notices and hiring, Kukenberger said. 

Dyer added under Maine law, it is the town clerk who would be responsible for determining if a potential violation occurred, was substantial, and, if so, whether to refer such a violation to the Maine Ethics Commission for enforcement. That said, Maine law does not provide for a civil penalty for a violation of the ballot question communication disclosure law, he said. 

Town Clerk Tody Justice said Tuesday she has not seen the ad, although she said a concern was raised by district administrative assistant Kelly Johnston, who asked if the ad had gone to print and said it should have contained disclosure information, Justice said. When asked if any penalty will be imposed, Justice said she is satisfied with the district’s response that not including such information was a mistake.

The clerk said in the future, it will be made clear who paid for the ad. 

Justice said there hasn’t been much public response to the advertisement, except for one email from a resident who inquired about its legality. 

Hillory Durgin, chairwoman of the communications committee, on Tuesday called the lack of a disclosure “an oversight,” saying the ad was not presented to the board’s attorney for review before going to print. 

Durgin said the school district’s attorney did not review this specific advertisement, but has told the board in the past it is legal and appropriate for the school board to advocate for the school budget, including a request for residents to support a spending plan. 

Durgin said Business Manager Kate Bolton told her she overlooked the requirement that advertisements must disclose who paid for the ad.

Durgin publicly apologized at a school board meeting June 8. 

“As most people know, this is my first budget season and I am learning from my experiences and mistakes as I go. I will be sure to include disclosures on any future paid advertisements over $500, and I am sorry that this ad was printed without it,” she said in an email. 

Voters approved the School Department’s $48.5 million school budget at the polls June 12 by 98 votes, 2,966 to 2,868.

The margin of less than 2 percent wasn’t surprising, given the turmoil that has recently engulfed the schools – including the recall of three School Board members and calls for the superintendent’s resignation – and the town’s history of rejecting the school budget.

Last year, it took three referendums before the budget was adopted by voters in September. In 2015, residents defeated it twice. It took two attempts in 2012, and three in 2013.

A group that worked to oppose the budget passage, SMARTtaxes, said in an email Tuesday it will not seek a recount because it would cost the residents behind the effort $2,000 to initiate. 

SMARTaxes said it reviewed state regulations on recounts and met with the Town Manager Thomas Hall to determine the feasibility of retallying the vote. 

“We asked that the town voluntarily undertake a recount of the school budget vote just to eliminate any possibility that observed voting anomalies may have impacted the outcome. Town officials declined the request to conduct a voluntary recount,” the group said via an email statement. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka

The advertisement in the June 8 Scarborough Leader, paid for by the school district, violated state disclosure laws because it did not specify who paid the the ad, and it also expressly urged voters to support the school budget at the polls June 12. 

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