9/15/2009Texas City Plans Taxpayer Funded Ad Blitz to Save Red Light Cameras
College Station, Texas plans to run 2500 television commercials to lobby the public against a red light camera referendum.
The city of College Station, Texas is planning to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on advertising that could save the city's red light cameras. A citizen-led initiative has put the program's future up for a public vote on November 3, but documents obtained under freedom of information laws by College Station resident Jim Ash indicate the city intends to spend thousands to saturate local television with pro-camera commercials and run full-page advertisements in the local newspaper. These ads would run in addition to those paid for by the for-profit company that operates the cameras.
"Could the City of College Station go so far with this voter eduction program they end up violating spirit or letter of the Texas Election Code, by the nature, size, timing, and aggressiveness of their planned 'educational program?'" Ash asked. "Is this the same city that could not find even one more dime in spending cuts last week?"
Texas law allows government agencies to provide information to the public and to respond to requests for information and analysis, but it specifically states that "an officer or employee of a political subdivision may not spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising." Violating this statute is a Class A misdemeanor.
In an email to the local newspaper, the Bryan-College Station Eagle, the city's assistant communications director, Wayne Larson, tied the advertising campaign directly to the upcoming election.
"Can you make some suggestions on what ad space we could purchase to promote our red light camera voter education efforts [in the] days leading up to fall elections," Larson asked on August 10, 2009. "I would think a full page opposite letters to editor would be considered, and those front page footer ads... I'm open to your ideas."
Larson's suggestions, if approved, would give the newspaper at least $10,000 in taxpayer money. A cable television advertising proposal dated August 8, 2009 gave a pricetag of $10,004 on the desired campaign consisting of 874 pro-red light camera commercials with "approximately 1600 additional spots" thrown in "at no cost." According to Larson, the commercials are designed to make photo ticketing an emotional issue to divert attention away from the independent studies that have shown red light cameras tend to increase the number of injury accidents where they are used (view studies).
"Yes, in dialogue with Troy and CMO, there has been discussion on using the funding invested into safety improvements as one of the talking points in framing this up as an emotional issue v. the technical arguments," Larson wrote on August 23. "There is a strategic meeting set with CMO in a week to confirm."
The amount of money discussed appears to be nearly seven times the amount spent, according to budget documents, to announce the program when photo ticketing began in February 2008. The public relations blitz may also be related to Mayor Ben White's concern that the public distrusts city council actions. White described this sentiment in an email dated August 6 upon returning from a meeting with a local business owner.
"The feelings of many citizens is that the actions of the council are always negative and not transparent," White wrote, describing the concerns raised at the meeting. "[The feeling is that] We are not interested in the citizens knowing what is going on."
White tried, and failed, to block the referendum in August.
A copy of the city documents Ash requested are available in a 400k PDF file at the source link below.