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A brightly colored flier that hit Salt Lake County mailboxes before the Nov. 2 election quoted Proposition 1 supporters about why they wanted voters to raise $15 million in property taxes to finish a new home for the Utah Museum of Natural History.

Printed in small type was the declaration that the mailer was "produced by the Utah Museum of Natural History."

Museum Director Sarah George acknowledges that the museum paid for the flier — and similar fliers — despite a state law banning public entities from spending money to influence bond elections.

"It doesn't specifically tell people to vote yes," she said, adding that museum lawyers said the mailer didn't violate the law.

An angry Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who wrote the law to stop taxpayers' money from influencing such bond elections, disagrees and said mailers sent during the campaign show "brazen disregard for the law."

Violating it is a Class B misdemeanor.

"I hope the appropriate authorities would examine the situation and make a determination" if the law was broken and charges should be filed, Stephenson said.

Mark Thomas, state elections director with the office of Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, said his office looks at such issues — if someone files a complaint — and may forward a recommendation for charges to the attorney general.

He said the process needn't start with his office, and the attorney general or a county attorney could choose to investigate and possibly file charges on their own.

Such mailers, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, add to a controversy that started a week before the election with other questionable campaigning for Proposition 1, which Stephenson said at the time were likely illegal, too, although museum backers disagreed.

Those tactics included a highway billboard campaign funded by the museum. Its signs didn't mention Proposition 1 — just the name of the museum and pictures of a dinosaur — so George said they didn't advocate for the bond.

But the timing was odd, if not designed to influence the election, because the museum closes in December for 10 months as it prepares to move to its new home at the opposite end of the University of Utah.

Also, ARUP Laboratories — which is owned by the University of Utah — gave $100,000 to Natural History Now, a public-issues committee established to advocate for the bond.

ARUP says it is a self-funded corporation, even though it is owned by a public entity, so such spending was legal.

It said it made the big donation — providing 90 percent of the funds for Natural History Now — as requested by the museum to promote interest in science. Of note, Carl Kjeldsberg, the board chairman and former CEO of ARUP, is also a member of the museum's board.

After controversy about ARUP and the museum-funded billboards, Stephenson wasn't happy to see copies of other mailers that the museum now acknowledges it paid for.

One pictures dinosaur tracks with the words, "Oh, give us a home where the dinosaurs roam," plus a reminder to vote on Nov. 2.

On the opposite side of that mailer is a list of community leaders supporting the bond and quotes from supportive editorials, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and others.

Business owner Curt Crowther is quoted as saying, "This new building is sure to keep Utah on the map as an interesting international destination. That's why I'm voting yes on Prop 1."

Another mailer explains that the current building is seismically unsafe, and that a new building would better protect treasures and conserve energy. It also refers people to the pro-Proposition 1 website of Natural History Now.

"Those are not advocacy pieces," George says. "What we have done is informed people about the new museum, what we do, and about what the initiative does. That was all appropriate education. We felt that we had a responsibility to let people know about the museum" and answer questions about the proposition.

Stephenson didn't buy it.

"This is obvious advocacy, on its face. I don't see how any attorney counseling them could see it otherwise," he said.

He quoted the law he sponsored, which says public entities may provide "factual information about a ballot proposition to the public, so long as the information grants equal access to both the opponents and proponents of the ballot proposition."

The opposing side wasn't represented anywhere on the fliers, he said.

Stephenson adds that he considers himself a major advocate for arts and science education.

"Still, I find what has been done in this case, both by the museum and ARUP, to be brazen disregard for the law," he said.

Controversy about the campaign can't negate the results of the election. Stephenson's law was written to say that, even if the law is broken, it "does not invalidate an otherwise valid election." —

What the law says

20A-11-1203(1): "Unless specifically required by law, a public entity may not make an expenditure from public funds for political purposes or to influence a ballot proposition."

20A-11-1203(3): "Nothing in this chapter prohibits a public entity from providing factual information about a ballot proposition to the public, so long as the information grants equal access to both the opponents and proponents of the ballot proposition."