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Orem candidate says city emails show mayor broke law playing politics with taxpayer resources

Published July 26, 2017 10:13 pm

Dispute • Mayor Richard Brunst denies allegations by challenger Hans Andersen.
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Orem mayoral candidate Hans Andersen says he has documents that show incumbent Mayor Richard Brunst violated state law by ordering use of city resources to fight voter referendums and for other political purposes.

Brunst says he broke no laws and that Andersen is misconstruing city emails that he obtained through an open-records request.

"It took four months for them [city officials] to get me that information," complains Andersen, a former City Council member, noting Utah records laws usually require disclosure within days. "And they charged me nearly $500 for it."

Andersen says they show such things as Brunst asking city employees to use city websites and emails to fight potential referendums seeking to overturn City Council actions, and to seek donations to help city allies in political fights. He provided copies to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Andersen also gave copies to Utah County Clerk-Auditor Bryan Thompson, who says he is investigating whether laws were broken.

"We are also involving our county attorney. With their help, we'll determine the validity" of the allegations, Thompson said. "I will also reach out to the chief elections officer of the state, the lieutenant governor's office, if needed."

Brunst and Andersen face each other in the Aug. 15 primary election along with candidate Archie Williams III.

The controversy arises largely from a petition drive that sought to overturn City Council approval of street leases by the Utah Transit Authority for a $190 million bus rapid transit (BRT) and road-improvement project between Provo and Orem — but involves some other potential petition drives and political activity.

The city rejected the BRT petitions arguing that approval of a lease is not subject to a possible referendum. Residents filed a lawsuit challenging that, which is still pending in court (although a similar lawsuit pushing a sister referendum in Provo was dismissed). Meanwhile, construction on the project has proceeded.

Andersen is among the residents who pushed the Orem referendum — and who also filed complaints last year alleging that Provo and Orem were using taxpayer money to send mass emails, hold meetings and make videos to fight them.

Utah Code 20A-11-1203 says "a public entity may not make an expenditure from public funds for political purposes or to influence a ballot proposition."

Because of those earlier complaints, Thompson last year imposed a $250 fine on Steve Downs, assistant to Orem's city manager, for sending emails from his public account to fight the initiative. Downs has appealed, and that matter is also pending in court.

With that, Andersen said he decided to request all city emails relating to referendums.

He says he finds six instances in which the city violated the law.

Among them is a May 21, 2015, email that Andersen says shows Brunst asking Downs to make contact with individuals to seek donations to the pro-BRT campaign. Brunst said it instead sought donations for the 2015 Proposition 1 to raise transportation taxes — although it had not yet qualified for the ballot.

Brunst said he was responding to a request from Abby Albrecht, director of the Utah Transportation Coalition, sent through Downs, about potential donors to help Prop 1.

"The email I sent was in response to a question and does not advocate either voting for or against Proposition 1," the mayor said. "Proposition 1 was not on the ballot when I wrote my email. It did not receive approval to be on the ballot until August of that year."

The email asks Downs to contact one potential donor to have him send "a donation to Utah transportation coalition," and to call another to "see if he can float a donation."

Andersen also complains that Brunst and City Manager Jamie Davidson directed city employees to monitor social media postings of people who might petition and challenge a controversial rezoning issue, and to use city resources to counter them

For example, a Sept. 16, 2015, email from Brunst to Davidson says, "I would like to request that we as a city on our website and Facebook make sure that any misinformation being passed around on opposing websites is addressed," and explain the benefits of the rezoning along the freeway.

Brunst's email adds, "Could you please have Steve Downs and Ryan Clark stay up with this and keep a positive campaign of support for this rezoning during the referendum period [when City Council actions could be challenged] up to October 23rd?"

Andersen lists other instances he says documents show city resources were used to fight referendums, or for other political purposes — but they do not show direct involvement by Brunst. They include:

• Orem's city offices were used for pro-BRT strategy meetings, as shown by an April 22, 2015, email from the Utah Transit Authority to numerous officials including such city leaders as Downs. The mayor was not included in those emails.

In it, UTA program manager Grey Turner writes, "Let's meet to discuss PR strategy over the next couple of weeks leading up to the public hearing and the 45-day clock for collecting referendum signatures."

• Documents show that Downs used city email to solicit statements of support for the BRT from such people as Utah Valley University President Matt Holland and Val Hale, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development. They sought it for use in ads, including an electronic billboard at University Mall.

They also show Downs helped pro-BRT officials approach Holland to see if he would put his name on an newspaper op-ed in favor of the project.

• Emails also show Downs worked with Provo officials on a pro-BRT video.

Downs said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune that "Andersen's claim that I and other city employees broke the law is false."

He says no valid voter referendum ever existed on BRT (although that is contested in court), so by definition the city technically could not have spent money to fight it.

"A violation of that section can only occur if there is a valid ballot proposition in existence at the time an email is sent. In the city's opinion, there was no valid proposition in existence at the time any of the emails referenced by Mr. Andersen were sent. There could therefore have been no violation," he wrote.

He adds, "In addition, the emails themselves do not constitute advocating for or against a ballot proposition."

Because of such arguments, state Rep. Brad Daw, R-0rem, attempted this year to more clearly ban public entities from using resources not only against referendums qualified for the ballot but also against "a petition for a ballot proposition." His HB20 did not pass.






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