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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Do Camas signs violate political rules?

Ads targeting three city officials appear to lack sponsorship

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Anonymous “attack ads” targeting three Camas officials have appeared in the final weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 general election.

The billboard-like signs, which bear no notice of who sponsored them, went up in late October along roads leading in and out of Camas, including a busy stretch of Southeast 192nd Avenue near Southeast Brady Road, just off state Highway 14.

The indigo-colored signs show enlarged photos of Camas Mayor Steve Hogan and Camas City Councilors Bonnie Carter and John Nohr under a headline, “Hold on to your wallets, Camas! These candidates want more than just your money.”

The signs state the three Camas officials have “approved and support” seemingly expensive projects that hurt Camas voters’ wallets, including:

  • A $78 million bond that Camas voters overwhelmingly rejected during the November 2019 general election, which would have constructed an aquatics-community center with recreational and competitive swimming pools, sports courts, community meeting rooms and an indoor walking track, with upgraded sports fields throughout the city.
  • The recently completed subarea planning work in Camas’ North Shore, which changed zoning and design requirements to better reflect the community’s vision for the nearly 900-acre area northeast of Lacamas Lake.
  • A long-planned remodel of Camas’ historic Crown Park, which is set to include a large, interactive water feature that will cost $530,000, not $7 million as the sign indicates.
  • The 2022 Camas City Council decision to diversify the city’s property- and sales-tax-dependent revenue streams by implementing a temporary 2 percent utility tax — a tax that has, so far, cost the average residential utility payer around $3 a month.

Accompanying the list of projects are four increasingly large bar graphs followed by the outlines of four money bags, then another message for Camas voters: “Raise your voice for the right choice.”

Several people contacted The Post-Record about the signs and have asked if the lack of sponsorship goes against Washington’s campaign-finance rules.

Natalie Johnson — a spokesperson for the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which oversees and enforces the state’s campaign finance, lobbying and political advertising rules and laws — said that because the signs are smaller than 4 by 8 feet in size, they “are exempt from the requirement for sponsor ID.”

Several community members who reached out to The Post-Record wondered if the advertisements violate laws regulating false political advertising.

According to Johnson, false political ads that are published with actual malice are illegal in Washington.

The anonymous advertisements contain a few “half truths” — the $78 million bond proposal in 2019, for example, was not for a pool but for a community center that would have contained a recreational pool as well as the competition pool that local swim teams had sought. The North Shore subarea planning, which spanned a four-year time frame between 2019 and 2023, included no new “development” by the city but instead a set of planning documents such as zoning changes and new design standards that will guide the future, mostly private, development in a part of the city that was already zoned for industrial, commercial and residential uses.

The advertisements attacking Camas’ mayor and two council members also contains at least two false accusations, including the statement that the officials “approved and supported” a $7 million splash pad. Instead, officials in Camas — going back as far as 2018 — have given their support to a master plan for a Crown Park remodel, estimated to cost between $6.2 million and $6.6 million, that includes a $530,000 interactive water element (splash pad) and other features such as an inclusive playground, ADA-accessible trails and new restrooms, which must be included for the city to receive $500,000 in state grant funding.

The advertisements also falsely say that Nohr, who was appointed to the council in October 2022, approved or even supported the creation of the North Shore subarea planning, which kicked off in 2019, or the Crown Park master plan, which the council OK’d in 2018, or the 2019 bond for the $78 aquatics-community center and sports field improvements.

Whoever created the signs must have realized Nohr was not a part of at least one of these decisions, because the signs include a tiny asterisk on one side of the double-sided advertisements telling people the “$78 million pool bond does not apply to candidate John Nohr.” However, that note is visible only to those willing to park their vehicle, cross the road and traverse a thorn-laden trail to read the Southeast 192nd Avenue sign up close.

According to Johnson, it is up to the Public Disclosure Commission to determine if signs may have violated the state’s political advertising rules.

“Only the Public Disclosure Commission can find a violation, after an investigation by staff, so I can’t confirm that this is, in fact, false political advertising,” Johnson told The Post-Record this week.

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