Gag order lifted for March ballot proposals

Published 10:16 am Thursday, February 11, 2016

A federal court ruling against the so-called “gag order” provision of a new state law has paved the way for the city to resume its plans to release information about the upcoming city charter amendment proposal.

Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge John Corbett O’Meara issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of a provision of the recently signed Public Act 269 that prevented municipalities from using public funding to release information via mass media about ballot proposals 60 days prior to an election. The judge’s ruling came in response to a lawsuit against the state filed by 19 Michigan public officials, including Dowagiac Mayor Don Lyons, in response to the passage of the law.

“Public officials deserve clarity on this issue so that they may serve the public in the normal course without fear of arbitrary sanction or prosecution,” O’Meara wrote in his decision. “This matter is best resolved through the legislative process, with due deliberation and debate. Given the fast approaching March 8, 2016 elections, however, time is of the essence and the court must act.”

The injunction temporarily prevents the state from taking action against municipalities that violate the law, which forbids cities or school districts from releasing information about ballot proposals via TV, radio or mass mailing. According to the language of the act, elected officials that infringed upon this provision faced up to $1,000 fine and/or one year in jail.

With the injunction now in place, officials with the City of Dowagiac plan on distributing information about the upcoming proposal on the March 8 election, which will ask voters to decide whether or not to amend the city charter to change the position of city clerk from an elected office to an office appointed by the city manager and city council.

Previously, the passage of PA 269 in January prevented the city from publishing such materials, as the March primary election was less than 60 days away.

“I think the judge’s ruling was appropriate,” said City Manager Kevin Anderson. “It opens the door for us to have discussions with the community that need take place. While the judge may not decide to ultimately overturn the law, placing an injunction allows us to go forward and have a basic conversation with the community that we were outlawed from having previously.”

The city plans on releasing informational materials explaining the ballot proposal with its utility bills next week, Anderson said. The city’s website will be updated to contain information about the proposal as well.

In addition, city officials are looking to schedule a public hearing about the proposed amendment within the next few weeks, in response to requests from several residents, Anderson said.

The city manager said the exact time and date of this hearing could be determined by Friday.

“Dialog is important, and to be able to have that dialog without threats of fines or jail hanging over our heads is a good thing,” he said.

While moving ahead with its information campaign, the city will continue to work with the Michigan Municipal League to support efforts to have Public Act 269 repealed, Anderson said.