City Councilwoman Carol Berz said she is disgusted by a Hamilton County election commissioner who sent out a mailer with her photo and name attached to it, saying she voted to raise property taxes during a recession.
Brandon Lewis, election commissioner and founder of the website www.stopthetaxincrease.org, said Wednesday he spent about $700 of his own money to send out about 1,600 of the mailers to registered voters in District 6, the district Dr. Berz represents.
The mailers started arriving at voter’s homes across Brainerd this week.
Dr. Berz said Mr. Lewis “has crossed the line as far as ethics.”
Contributed photo A flyer being mailed in the Chattanooga area critical of Carol Berz
“It’s unclear to me if Mr. Lewis is in violation of campaign finance law or election commission rules. That’s for others to decide,” she said.
Mr. Lewis said that, as far as he knows, the law says he cannot be a campaign manager or treasurer.
“There’s no laws on how you can oppose a City Council vote,” he said.
The mailer has a photo of Dr. Berz on one side with a disclaimer at the bottom saying, “Paid for by Stop the Tax Increase, not sent (obviously) from Carol Berz.” The other side of the mailer says, “I just voted to increase your property taxes by 19 percent during a recession.”
The mailer also says Dr. Berz voted to increase city fees, stormwater fees and “annexation in areas we can’t afford.”
Mr. Lewis said he saw no problems with alerting people about what an elected official voted on.
“There’s a lot of folks who will be impacted by this tax increase,” he said.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, Hamilton County elections administrator, said this week that the law does not prohibit Mr. Lewis from using his freedom of speech.
“There is no problem with Brandon Lewis doing this,” she said.
Blake Fontenay, spokesman for the Tennessee Division of Elections, reiterated that the law only restricts election commissioners from being campaign managers or treasurers.
WHAT THE CODE SAYS
Tennessee Code Annotated does not restrict an election commissioner from sending out political literature. What the code restricts is:
“No member of a county election commission who is appointed to the commission after January 1, 2009, shall be the campaign manager or treasurer of any candidate’s political campaign in a local, state or federal election during the commissioner’s term of office. A violation of this subdivision (a)(2) subjects the member to immediate removal from office by a majority vote of the state election commission. Nothing in this subdivision (a)(2) shall be construed to prohibit a member of the county election commission from providing uncompensated advice on a one-on-one basis to a candidate or party officer, nor shall it prohibit providing a financial contribution to a candidate or party organization.”
Source: Tennessee Code Annotated
Questions also arose about whether Mr. Lewis needed to register his group, Stop the Tax Increase, as a political action committee and whether he needed to disclose contributions.
Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he doesn’t think Mr. Lewis needed to register.
“It does not appear they would need to register as a PAC because they aren’t supporting a political campaign,” he said. “It’s their First Amendment right.”
Councilwoman Pam Ladd rallied to her colleague, saying that whether the mailer was legal or not, it was dishonest. She said the disclaimer is not on the same side as the voting information and, as an election commissioner, Mr. Lewis has “biased” the next election.
“I think it’s one of the most mean-spirited projects I’ve seen in politics,” she said. “Perhaps it’s not illegal, but it’s unethical.”
She said it’s wrong that Mr. Lewis is attacking Dr. Berz when it’s not an election year and after the council voted. It’s also wrong that only one person on the council was targeted, she said.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he and the Hamilton County delegation chose to put Mr. Lewis on the commission. He said he has not heard from anyone about possibly removing Mr. Lewis, but he said he can’t see a reason for taking that step.
“If you can’t restrict him from free speech, I don’t see what he’s violated,” Sen. Watson said. “On what premise? He hasn’t violated any rules, any laws.”
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