Apr 27 2014

Is the Use of Public Facilities for Certain Forums by the League of Women Voters Legal?

– Should a nonprofit organization endorsing and participating in a ballot measure campaign be allowed to use taxpayer funded public facilities and resources to disseminate information at an “impartial” forum? –

New legislation approved October 12, 2013, prohibits campaigning nonprofit organizations from using public resources and facilities.   Sections 54964.5 and 54964.6 went into effect on January 1, 2014:


This bill would prohibit a nonprofit organization or an officer, employee, or agent of a nonprofit organization from using, or permitting another to use public resources received from a local agency for campaign activity, as defined, and not authorized by law. This bill would define, among other terms, “public resources” to mean any property or asset owned by a local agency and funds received by a nonprofit organization which have been generated from any activities related to conduit bond financing by those entities subject to specified conduit financing and transparency and accountability provisions, and “nonprofit organization” to mean an entity incorporated under the Nonprofit Corporation Law or a nonprofit organization that qualifies for exempt status under the federal Internal Revenue Code of 1986, except as specified.

Election after election, Piedmont’s League of Women Voters (PLWV) has been allowed to use City or school facilities to conduct “forums” on ballot measures, which the League has already taken a publicized political position.  In recent years, the PLWV has not only been allowed to conduct these events in Piedmont City Hall, but also had them video-taped, recorded, and disseminated using public taxpayer funds via Piedmont’s cable station KCOM and website.

(7) “Public resources” means the following:
(A) Any property or asset owned by a local agency, including, but not limited to, cash, land, buildings, facilities, funds, equipment, supplies, telephones, computers, vehicles, travel, and local government compensated work time that is provided to a nonprofit organization, except funds received in exchange for consideration for goods or services.

The League considers itself to be nonpartisan because it is not affiliated with a particular political party or candidate. However, the League is partisan in its support of numerous City, County and State ballot measures.  As members know, their Piedmont League of Women Voters membership dues are not tax deductible because of the League’s political advocacy, actions and positions for and against ballot measures and legislation. Read current League of  Women Voters “Take Action” instructions.

Read the newly added section to the Government Code.

On April 7, the Piedmont League of Women Voters Board of Directors held a private debate in the home of their president and new Piedmont resident Hope Salzer on the pros and cons of the Alan Harvey Theater School Bond, Measure H.

“Measure H is a Piedmont Unified School District bond measure. It seeks voter approval to authorize the District to issue and sell bonds of up to $13,500,000 to finance modernization of the Alan Harvey Theater at Piedmont High School. To pass, the measure must be approved by 55% of the voters.”

Unknown to the majority of approximately 150 Piedmont League members and the public, the Board undertook a controlled debate on Measure H.  Invited to a portion of the meeting was a Piedmont Post reporter, who was present during the debate. No other media representatives were included.

Presentations were made to “twelve” board members on the pros and cons of the measure.  The League Board was joined at the “debate” by League member and Board of Education Vice President Andrea Swenson, who is supportive of Measure H although not currently a League Board member.  Swenson responded to questions after the debate, but, according to reports, did not vote.

The League Board is entitled to make endorsements without general membership approval, notification, knowledge or participation. Only current Board members are allowed to vote on endorsements.  The Board members’ votes were made in private and have not been disclosed publicly, but according to the Post report, support for Measure H was not unanimous, however endorsement of Measure H by the League was won.

The League’s endorsement of Measure H is considered a campaign activity making the League a partisan nonprofit organization prohibited from using public facilities.

An exception in the legislation for the use of public resources is made for the presentation of impartial information.

“(c) This section does not prohibit the use of public resources for providing information to the public about the possible effects of any ballot measure on the activities, operations, or policies of the state or a local agency, provided that the informational activities meet both of the following conditions:

(1) The informational activities are not otherwise prohibited by the California Constitution or the laws of this state.

  1. The information provided constitutes an accurate, fair, and impartial presentation of relevant facts to aid the electorate in reaching an informed judgment regarding the ballot measure.”

Significantly, the Piedmont League’s public notice of their May 1 forum in City Hall acknowledges League support of Measure AA, a Healthcare Safety Net, while making no mention of the Piedmont League of Women Voter’s support and endorsement of Measure H.

In the past, the League has attempted to hide their campaign endorsements prior to and during forums.  Yet currently, the public has been notified in a local newspaper of the League’s ballot measure support position revealing  the League’s partiality. 

The League states it will hold a “completely neutral” forum “so that citizens can hear arguments for and against” their supported ballot measures.  The forum is to be recorded, broadcast, rerun, and held at taxpayers expense. 

The previous privately held debate on the local tax measure by the League Board of Directors is in contrast to Piedmont League public forums.  The private debate allowed presentations both pro and con followed by unscreened questions. Providing an opportunity for impartiality at the public forums, audience members who have a question must submit their questions in writing or by text message to a League committee to be screened privately prior to a question being asked of presenters.  Not all questions are publicly asked.

The League has taken a political position and is involved in current election campaigns raising the question of compliance with the new definitions and requirements in California law.  Voters and City officials know the League’s political positions on ballot Measure H and now Measure AA.

Does the May 1 forum meet legal requirements?

Can a nonprofit organization supporting ballot measure campaigns use public resources for a political forum?  

Would the City permit any nonprofit organization’s use of City taxpayer resources, if the organization was opposed to a City supported tax measure, even if the organization promised impartiality? 

Editors’ Note:  The Piedmont Civic Association does not support or oppose ballot measures or candidates for public office.  The article above is not intended as opposition to Measure H.  

5 Responses to “Is the Use of Public Facilities for Certain Forums by the League of Women Voters Legal?”

  1. Dear PCA readers:

    My name is Hope Salzer. I am the current President of the League of Women Voters of Piedmont. The author of the above post is not knowledgable of the League’s bifurcated legal structure that allows it to separately carry on its two distinct roles which, together, serve the League’s core mission to preserve the health and vitality of engaged democracy in the U.S.

    Since there are numerous inaccuracies in the above post (more than a dozen), I will not bore the readership by listing them and correcting them one-by-one, but I will address the key question posed by the author and explain the League’s separate and exclusive roles.

    1) The League, indeed, has a political advocacy role, one to which it devotes some of its financial resources. This is the reason that League membership dues are not tax-deductible. The lion’s share of member dues are sent directly to LWV-US, LWV-CA and LWV-Bay Area league levels to contribute to the League’s collective advocacy mission to resolve important issues like climate change, electoral corruption, air and water quality, etc.

    2) The League has a completely separate legal, non-profit entity called the League of Women Voters Education Fund to which donations are 100% tax-exempt. The League’s Voter Service mission is carried out by the League’s Education Fund, whose goals are to a) encourage every eligible citizen to become a registered voter, and b) to encourage registered voters to actively vote and c) to equip registered voters with the information they need to be more fully-informed on issues when they cast their vote.

    Therefore, League Voter Service events– like January’s, April’s and this Thursday’s election forums– strive to provide voters with up-to-date, accurate, broad-based information on every candidate as well as some relevant ballot measures in order to give voters the chance to both take-in information and ask clarifying and nuanced questions to improve voters’ understanding of some very complex public policy issues. The question posed here is whether or not the League’s Education Fund can host an impartial Voter Service program when its advocacy organization has taken a position on a ballot measure and advocacy organization and Education Fund volunteers may overlap. Here is why my answer is Yes: the League does not provide, nor comment on, any of the information provided by the presenters, nor is it screened in advance. The League has an impartial process for determining who will speak first (drawing lots) and then rotates the speaker’s order by turns during the Q and A segment of the event. Anyone can contact a League to propose or nominate a great speaker for a Voter Service event. Questions are not screened to eliminate questions or introduce bias. Questions are simply screened for duplication and for the use of courteous language conducive to promoting civic dialogue. Time constraints dictate how many questions can be asked. Volunteers screening the questions may not be volunteers within the League who voted to favor the ballot measure in the first place. However, one cannot serve as a voting member of the League’s Board of Directors in an influential position and volunteer on a campaign.

    Is the League’s process fool-proof? Is it possible to provide absolutely comprehensive information and expert comprehension to the general public on complex issues and answer every conceivable question in a 90-minute timeframe? Are League volunteers human and fallible?

    It may be easy for some to find fault with League’s efforts because the League works to improve some of the most difficult, nuanced, intractable (and divisive) issues in our human society (providing for the poor, elderly, disabled and sick while allowing current workers a decent living, educating the young to be productive, thoughtful adults, preserving the environment while stimulating a healthy economy, preserving peace and stability, providing justice, etc). Certainly, there may be ways to improve the process used for League Voter Service events. For example, Voter Service events rely on the candor and integrity of the volunteer presenters delivering information for voters to consider. By the process’s very structure (the delivery of one Pro and one Con perspective, limited to what can be orally transmitted in 5 minutes!) there may be biases included. To the extent that information is withheld, misleading language is used, or data are manipulated or cherry-picked, the process is sub-optimized. Additionally, it is difficult for anyone, particularly presenters who are citizen-volunteers, not necessarily specialist/professionals or subject matter experts, to be fully informed in every one of the many interrelated topics involved in considering a single ballot measure. Furthermore, speakers at Voter Service events may not be trained in the art of public speaking or oral argument, and thus the skillfulness of the presenters may not be equally matched. In an ideal world, one can imagine improvements so that 100% incontrovertible impartiality is conveyed.

    However, the question here is whether or not it is better to at least attempt to provide voters with at least two, timely perspectives on an issue when they are preparing to cast their vote. Is it better than nothing? If so, the question becomes who should deliver that information and how? Can we rely on other vehicles at our disposal to fully inform our votes– the press? the internet? the grapevine? lawn signs? Is there another non-partisan, grassroots organization that would step into the vacuum and do the work better? The League welcomes volunteer members to assist in delivering and improving the process to ensure that voters have even more objective and comprehensive information to inform their votes. After a Voter Service event (held well in advance of an election but close to the time when mail-in ballots first become available), voters can review the event online, on KCOM, and ask additional questions of their elected representatives or do additional research themselves to clarify areas not fully understood.

    Furthermore, the League encourages all voters to take the initiative to stay or become [more] informed on the many, many important civic issues our city, county, region, state, country and planet face today. Moreover, the League encourages active civic participation and community involvement to make our world a more efficiently-functioning, harmonic, healthy and lovely place. Whether or not you volunteer with the League, we welcome your suggestions and look forward to improving our Voter Services. In the meantime, I hope you will come to the League’s Voter Service event at 7:30pm (until 9pm) on Thursday, May 1st at Piedmont City Hall to learn more about Piedmont Unified School District bond Measure H and Alameda County sales tax Measure AA, to ask your own questions, and improve your own understanding of these issues and decisions. Once you are satisfied that you know enough to determine how you’d like to vote, please do vote on (or before) June 3rd.

    Thank you for your support of the Piedmont League of Women Voters and the hard-working, committed volunteers who devote their leisure time toward the earnest goal of giving voters a fuller, more long-term perspective on which to base their votes.

    With appreciative recognition of all of Piedmont’s hundreds of volunteers,
    Hope Salzer; President, League of Women Voters of Piedmont

    Editors’ Note: PCA welcomes corrections to articles if readers find an error. On January 9 PCA alerted the community to the strict new law on the use of Public Facilities for Election meetings.

  2. I am concerned that the Piedmont LWV puts forth only safe questions at their forums. And as they have taken a position on Measure H, will the editing of questions remain neutral? Questions I posed at the January Forum were all dismissed. Blair Park divided our community in a manner that even the Undergrounding Debacle could not match, yet the candidates’ viewpoint on the troubled Blair Park process remained hidden.

    The endorsement of local measures by the LWV and the process by which this is done is very troubling. The LWV endorsed the last School Parcel Tax and did not consult with opponents; the LWV only met early on with the Tax Measure Proponent co-Chair. That is a categorically biased process. The Piedmont LWV endorsement of that tax was inconsistent with the State LWV’s viewpoint on regressive taxes. The LWV wanted to have a PUSD school Asst. Superintendent speak at the forum until opponent speakers pointed out the inherent bias in that. The process leading to the LWV’s endorsement of Measure H appears to be orchestrated and a “done-deal.”

    Considering the limited unbiased media resources in town, as flawed as the process of televised LWV Forums at City Hall may be, it does serve to educate the electorate.

  3. I appreciate your gracious acknowledgement of the value that League Voter Service Forums provide our community, in spite of their deficiencies.

    I cannot speak to events prior to my tenure as a League member, but as President, if long-held League processes to reduce or eliminate bias were not followed in the past, I express my regrets and my commitment to making improvements.

    As far as the League’s position on regressive taxes, there is none that is categorical. The League has a position on State and Local Finance which is nuanced and takes many variables into account. The League also has a position on Public Education. It is always up to the judgement of League members how to interpret the sometimes conflicting, overlapping and complex weave that the public policy choices which are placed before voters present. It’s not as formulaic as you might imagine.

    Finally, I can assure you (and many witnesses can attest to this) that this year’s League endorsement of Measure H was neither orchestrated in any way nor a done deal.

  4. Good to know that under Hope’s leadership the LWV will move to eliminate any questionable past practices. I am hopeful the LWV Forum tomorrow night will have some tough, direct queries as serious questions have been raised about Measure H.

  5. Hope, thank you for explaining the differences between LWV Board operations and Voter Education Services. Can you clarify how the Board informs its membership when considering political endorsements?

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