04/25/08 — Sales tax ad protest rejected by the state Board of Elections

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Sales tax ad protest rejected by the state Board of Elections

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 25, 2008 1:45 PM

After receiving a complaint filed against the Wayne County Board of Commissioners regarding its advertisement of the quarter-cent sales tax Tuesday, the state Board of Elections reported Wednesday that no violations were found.

"We reviewed it, and there are no violations," Director Gary Bartlett said. "There is no express advocacy in it."

Rather, he explained, the board determined that all the radio spots and printed brochures managed to walk the line and stay on the side of "educational" items.

"The bright line is if it uses words like 'vote for,' 'vote against,' 'support' or 'oppose' -- action words," Bartlett said, noting that Wayne County's materials did not.

Had they, though, the commission would have been required to create a referendum committee -- a type of political action committee -- and disclose all its actions and spending.

But, Bartlett explained that the decision was based on current case law, which holds that while governments cannot spend taxpayer dollars advocating for or against issues such as the quarter-cent sales tax referendum, they can take steps to inform people about the consequences of either decision.

And in fact, he added, none of the two or three complaints the board has received on these issues have "crossed that line."

The complaint, however, filed with the Wayne County Board of Elections by Goldsboro resident Ed Wharton, alleged that instead of those action words, the county's materials used "... current effective marketing and selling techniques used to sell, persuade or influence others to believe, accept or buy your service, product or point of view."

In particular, he alleged that the county used scare tactics to promote fear of the current county communications system -- the stated use for the sales tax revenue.

Because of such language, the complaint stated that: "There should be no doubt that these messages have the main purpose of obtaining support for the quarter-cent sales tax."

It's an assertion that Wharton still stands by, but he said that he would have to review the state board's decision before deciding whether or not to press forward.

"We figured this would probably happen. We're going to have to take a look at it and make a decision pretty quickly," he said.

His only recourse would be to appeal to the full state Board of Elections, and then if that fails, to the Superior Court of Wake County.

For their part, though, county officials are not concerned -- confident that they have acted appropriately.

"(County attorney) Borden (Parker) is the man who advises us, and he's pretty good," Commission Chairman Bud Gray said. "So what he says, I can live with. We didn't do anything wrong."