Call it the Kshama Shan't act. Mayor Ed Murray has proposed legislation to explicitly prevent elected officials from using city hall for electioneering.
An anonymous complaint filed with the city ethics office two weeks ago by one "Bill Kirk" (William Shatner crossed with his famous character Captain Kirk?)—along with a phone call complaint from city council member Sally Bagshaw to the ethics office—raised questions about council member Kshama Sawant's campaign tactics.
"There seems to be some confusion over whether or not political activity related to official events organized by city staff is currently prohibited."
Sawant set up a campaign table with reelection signs and literature inside the city hall lobby in tandem with the April 23 rent control forum she held up the stairway in city hall chambers.
City (and state law) prohibit the use of public resources for electioneering; so, for example, elected officials and their staffers can't use office stationery or phone lines to campaign. The reasoning goes like this: Incumbents shouldn't be able to use publicly funded resources that competing nonincumbent candidates don't have access to. Sawant's supposed transgression could be in a gray area, though; any candidate does have access to the city hall lobby—and city policy makes it clear that causes are free to set up shop in city hall. (No tables, though, so Sawant is likely to get slapped on the wrist for that one.)
"People don't like to see their tax dollars promoting campaigns or appearing to."
The ethics office is still taking up the complaint—and, of course, there is the context that Sawant was simultaneously holding a political rally in chambers. The rally itself was kosher according to city ethics director Wayne Barnett. But the fact that nonincumbent candidates can't similarly commandeer city hall chambers while tabling outside chambers adds a layer to the question in front of the ethics department.
In legislation proposed today by mayor Ed Murray and being sponsored city council member Tom Rasmussen (he'll introduce it in full council on Monday), there will no longer be any question about it.
Adding language to law that already prohibits public officials from using public facilities for an election, the proposed legislation states: "No elected official, nor the official's agent, shall engage in campaign activities at, or adjacent to, any official city public event that is organized by that elected official or any employee of the official's office. The campaign activities may not occur during the event or at any time that attendees of the public event are present."
Asked if the proposal was a direct response to Sawant, Rasmussen simply said: "It's in response to a concern about that type of activity. You can't put up posters...inviting people down to city hall...and then they have campaign materials all arrayed there. People don't like to see their tax dollars promoting campaigns or appearing to."
Murray spokesman Jason Kelly told me: "The mayor's office believes the current city elections code clearly prohibits political activity supported by public resources, but there seems to be some confusion over whether or not political activity related to official events organized by city staff is currently prohibited. The mayor’s proposal adds...language to the current code. If there was any confusion before, there certainly won't be any confusion after this new language is adopted."
I have a call in to Sawant.
And speaking of campaign tables, I should probably ask her why she spent $170 on a campaign office table at the Factoria Square Mall Target, the ardently antiunion retailer.