The Washington agency that polices state campaign law is almost done investigating a 2014 complaint that public employees improperly worked as advocates for raising the sales tax to pay for more police and other public safety measures in Benton County.
The complaint, filed in July 2014 by opponents to the 0.3 percent sales tax measure, targeted officials in Benton County and the cities of Kennewick, Richland and West Richland.
The Washington Public Disclosure Commission said it will complete its investigation in the coming weeks.
Benton County voters gave the measure, which added three cents to every $10 purchase, 53 percent approval in August 2014. Two similar proposals had failed earlier.
The complaint is the work of four Benton County residents who combed through public documents and emails requested under the state’s public records act. Its authors have not forgotten and are anticipating the results.
“None of us have died yet,” said Leon Howard, a retired Energy Northwest security official from West Richland who signed the official complaints. “The entire committee is alive.”
The PDC can levy fines up to $10,000 if it finds officials acted improperly. Howard said a finding in his favor would serve as a stiff reminder that government employees may not use public resources, including emails, vehicles, time and uniforms, to promote tax issues or raise funds to support campaigns.
“I don’t want it to happen again. We want our officials to be just that, and to follow the law,” he said.
I don’t want it to happen again. We want our officials to be just that, and to follow the law.
Leon Howard, West Richland
Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the disclosure commission, said the investigation was stymied by a backlog of more than 100 complaints when Evelyn Fielding Lopez became executive director in October 2014.
It has been working to clear the backlog since she arrived. Its current caseload includes three other Tri-City cases, but none older than the one targeting the 2014 public safety tax campaign.
Lopez said the complaint was unusually complicated, with more than a dozen exhibits and 10 named respondents as well as the cities.
At its core, Howard’s complaint alleges public officials appeared to blur the line between providing factual information, which is allowed, and advocating for the measure, which is not.
The public safety tax has raised nearly $9 million since taking effect in 2015.
Evelyn Lusignan, spokeswoman for the city of Kennewick, said neither the city nor its employees intentionally violated state campaign law.
“We do not know what the results of the PDC’s review will be but look forward to reviewing the conclusions,” she said.
Benton County receives 60 percent of the revenue to support the sheriff’s department, jail, and efforts to prevent crime. The remaining 40 percent is divided among the cities of Benton County based on population.