The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments from the Minnesota Voters Alliance and Anoka-Hennepin District 11 Oct. 25. The arguments centered on whether a brochure the district circulated before a 2011 levy referendum was campaign literature or informational and whether financial reports should have been filed because it was allegedly promotional.
The Minnesota Voters Alliance, with Donald Huizenga, a parent in the school district, filed a complaint Nov. 2, 2012, just over a year after the district posted the brochure on its website and mailed it to residents.
The initial complaint alleged that the school district violated campaign financial reporting and fair campaign practices statutes.
The matter was dismissed in April when an administrative law judge ruled that the Minnesota Voters Alliance had failed to file in time, within one year of the distribution of the brochures.
While the alliance is not pursuing the fair campaign practices portion of the lawsuit to which the statute of limitations applies in this case, it did file an appeal with the state appeals court on the campaign financial reporting issue.
The brochure detailed the three levy questions on the November 2011 ballot: Question 1: Renewal of the 2007 levy; Question 2: Authorization of the capital project levy for technology; Question 3: Authorization of an additional levy to support educational programs. It listed the consequences of a “yes” vote and a “no” vote.
“It’s clear that the information they provided is meant to promote a ‘yes’ vote,” Huizenga said in an interview after the Oct. 25 hearing,
Only positive information was listed in the columns describing what would occur if the questions passed and negative information in those outlining what would happen if they did not, he said.
“It doesn’t have to have the magic word ‘yes’” to be promotional, said Andy Cilek, president of the Minnesota Voters Alliance. A disclaimer on the district’s brochure – “This brochure is not circulated on behalf of any candidate or ballot question.” – did not satisfy him.
Jeanette Bazis, a partner at Greene Espel and outside counsel for the district, maintains that the brochure is strictly informational.
“[The district has] got an obligation to educate voters about the impact of a ‘yes’ vote and the impact of a ‘no’ vote,” Bazis said.
After a levy in 2001, the district held community meetings and received feedback from 3,500 voters. Many said that they did not know what they were voting on; there wasn’t enough information for them to make a decision, and budget cuts were the result, according to Bazis.
Especially after that election, “the district really takes seriously its obligation to inform voters,” Bazis said. “There’s a lot of money at stake.”
The line between informational and promotional material is “too discretionary,” according to Erick Kaardal, an attorney with Mohrman and Kaardal, representing the Minnesota Voters Alliance and Huizenga.
The ultimate goal is to have the court draw the line, Cilek said.
“This case has the potential to impact not only every school district in Minnesota, but every municipality,” he said.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has 90 days from Oct. 25 to come back with a ruling.
Olivia Koester is at firstname.lastname@example.org