SACRAMENTO — Los Angeles County transit officials said Thursday they have removed material regarding a proposed sales tax increase from their government website, amid complaints that it amounted to an improper use of taxpayer funds to promote the ballot measure.
Word of the change came as a state watchdog agency proposed tightening a law against use of taxpayer funds in ballot measure campaigns, citing criticism that the Ventura County Transportation Commission had once used public money to promote a sales tax increase.
The issue has galvanized opponents of Measure R, the half-cent sales tax proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot in L.A. County that would help pay for $40 billion in transit improvements, including a subway to the sea.
The county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority removed written material from its website after complaints by opponents, including county Supervisor Don Knabe, that it went too far in advocating a political position. Knabe said he was riding in his car when he heard a radio ad that urged people to go to the website. He said the site gave only the promotional side of the issue.
"I don't think there is any question they are promoting Proposition R," Knabe said. "I considered it outrageous."
The agency said it plans to put information back on the website once it is reviewed by attorneys, spokesman Marc Littman said.
"Our lawyers just wanted to make sure we are not advocating anything," said Littman.
Littman said the material was derived from a proposed public brochure submitted recently to the MTA board. The proposed brochure, which is also being reviewed, said in part that Measure R would cost residents "just $25 per person each year. Compare that to what traffic congestion and poor roads cost us today."
It stopped short of urging people to vote for Measure R but said of transit resources, "more is needed" to reduce traffic congestion.
It is illegal to use taxpayer funds to promote a ballot measure. But a recent court decision muddied the issue by stating that a communication is not a political expenditure unless the communication contains express advocacy, according to a report by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
"Consequently, many agencies are pushing the limits with public outreach programs clearly biased or slanted in their presentation of facts relating to a ballot measure supported or opposed by the agency," the report said.
In response, the state commission voted 5 to 0 on Thursday to consider a law change in December. The proposed change would make it clearer that a payment of public money by a governmental agency for a communication relating to a ballot measure would be considered a political expenditure unless the communication provides a fair and impartial presentation of facts.
In arguing for a tougher law, Commissioner Robert Leidigh cited a 2005 investigative report by the Ventura County district attorney.
It concluded that the county's transportation commission had improperly spent $163,380 in public funds to print and mail postcards to voters that promoted the benefits of a half-cent sales tax for transit projects.