In the last 48 hours I've received "blast" email from Pace requesting that I contact my legislators and ask them to support Senate Bill 572. The email is as follows:
IT’S NOT TOO LATE TO HELP
AVOID A TRANSIT CRISIS
The calls and letters are working, but more support is needed immediately!
With the legislature still in session, Pace urges you to contact your state legislators and the Governor to tell them how important your service is to you.
Without your help, we may not get the required funding to prevent service cuts and fare increases. We encourage you— along with friends and family— to share your concerns about the impact that fare increases, the elimination of all weekend and Metra feeder service, and reduced paratransit service will have on you.
Ask your legislator to support Senate Bill 572, which provides new funding for
public transit. To find your legislators’ contact information, call 847-364-7223 or visit www.pacebus.com to send an email directly to your elected officials TODAY.
Share your story, your Pace service depends on it!Am I old fashioned in my concern about public agencies using public money and resources (e.g., Pace's email system) to urge members of the public to engage in political action? If public agencies can urge folks to take political action via emails are they justified in using public money to run ads, do fake opinion polls designed to put agency opponents in a bad light, lend their name in support of candidates who support the public agency, and the like?
Can a public agency take up legislative causes championed by one political party or a fraction thereof? ("Pace supports Governor Blagoevich's health care plan because healthy bus riders are happy Pace customers. So call your legislators now.") Could Pace champion the fact that "Pace supports Republicans, whose tireless efforts to block a state capital plan over the past four years have helped the transit system immensely." (Or maybe not that one exactly!)
Drawing the the line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in terms of using public resources to press for political action by members of the public may be an aesthetic matter as much as a legal matter. (The federal Hatch Act does put some real restrictions on political activities by the employees of state and local agencies that received federal grants but I'm not sure if it reaches the agencies themselves.)
In my admittedly old fashioned view, public agencies should focus on performing the tasks assigned to them by their enabling acts. Their involvement in the political side of things should be limited to providing accurate and complete information to any politician--indeed, any citizen--who asks. This includes, of course, briefing legislators on issues important to the public agency, but it does not include trying to orchestrate direct political pressure on the legislators. Public agencies hope that their good performance and the good will that results from treating all politicians evenhandedly regardless of party affiliation is sufficient to gain legislative support for their funding requests.
My preferred approach may be hopelessly naive. Agencies that fail to whip their clients into a frenzy of political action may well fall short of getting their "fair" share of the available public resources.
It certainly strikes me as acceptable for Pace's people to make speeches in favor of SB 572 that may get reported and for Pace's publicity machine to disseminate factual information about Pace's needs and the effect of SB 572. Moreover, as bills go, SB 572 is not a particularly bad one for Pace to use email blasts and other tactics to drum up political support. SB 572 appears to have bipartisan support. Pace's political advocacy on its behalf thus lacks the trappings of a public agency's use of public funds to prop up the platform of one political party.
I'm still troubled, however, by Pace's use of blast email urging its customers to engage in political action on behalf of SB 572. It puts a public agency in the middle of the political thicket. It is a high-risk operation that if effective in getting Pace's customers riled up may risk alienating the legislators and their staffs who have to field the calls and the visits.
I don't know if the retort "every agency is doing it" is factually accurate. Nor do I think that such an assertion, if true, justifies Pace's use of public resources to rev up its customers to do its political bidding.