Don’t bother asking Spokane County road workers what they’d do with the county’s share of a proposed gas tax increase.
They’ve been ordered not to answer.
In a meeting Tuesday, county commissioners told staff not to offer opinions about which roads would be repaired or how many miles of pavement the county could lay if voters approve a 2.3-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase in November.
Answering might be interpreted as campaigning, commissioners said. It’s enough to note that the ballot measure itself limits the county to spending the money to repair roads, they said.
Commissioners ordered the Public Works Department to print a fact sheet listing such details as the miles of roads maintained by the county, the miles of asphalt laid in recent years and the amount of money spent on that work.
Commissioners forbade anyone other than public works Director Dennis Scott and department spokesman Chad Hutson to speak about the issue on behalf of the county. Off-duty public employees can participate in campaigns.
That pair can only offer the same facts stated on the handout, or correct clearly erroneous statements made by either side of the issue.
Scott and Hudson can speak to civic groups if they share the podium with both a tax opponent and proponent, commissioners said. But they can’t go on radio or television talk shows.
“This talk-show business, stay away from it,” said Commissioner Kate McCaslin, who warned that hosts or reporters would try to lead county employees into taking a stand.
A similar policy will apply to the conservation futures tax, which also will be on the November ballot, said Commissioner John Roskelley.
The policy is a far cry from the tact taken by Spokane city officials last year, when city voters rejected a $37 million bond issue for street repairs.
Before the election, city workers posted signs on 70 streets, informing voters that those streets would be improved if enough people voted yes.
Opponents of the bond issue complained that the signs amounted to illegal taxpayer-funded campaigning. City officials said the city was only providing factual information, which is allowed under state campaign laws.
Commissioner Phil Harris argued Tuesday that to prevent such disputes, the county should not allow even Scott or Hudson to speak about the gas tax.
But Harris violated the new policy before Tuesday’s meeting even ended.
Noting that he voted to put the gas-tax on the ballot, Harris said that shouldn’t be interpreted as support for the tax itself. As a matter of fact, he said, “I don’t think we need the money.”
“Well, now you’re campaigning,” McCaslin said to Harris.
“You’re absolutely right, Kate,” said Harris. “That’s how easy it is (to slip from fact to opinion). I didn’t even know I was doing it.”