Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Pace Of Political Activity By Public Agencies

Pace's Board met today and voted to implement its "doomsday" budget scenario via a sweeping set of service cuts and fare increases.

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.

8 comments:

jackonthebus said...

The impression I drew from receiving the Pace e-mail was that it shows that the contingency plans actually proposed were political, and only to drum up legislative pressure. I had previously said that while it may have been necessary for the CTA to have a contingency plan, bringing up a more draconian one based on the same principles as the 2005 one was also a political ploy.

I concluded that the only real purpose of the hearings (other than to satisfy some statutory mandate) was to stir up the populace to pressure the legislature, not modify the plan. If we buy what was in the ABC7 report, the Pace board passed the plan without any modification resulting from public input. Also, on June 13, Carole Brown said on Ask Carole "The most frequently asked questions [at the CTA hearings] will be posted here soon" but have not yet, although she now says that legislation is making progress.

I also noted that the CTA home page has a link to Tony Coppoletta's site to send a message to your legislator. Apparently CTA, unlike Pace, can't do it directly.

Finally, the mail campaign should be to the Gov (you can Google his real address), since the last I heard, his veto threat was holding things up (although, again, many news outlets haven't figured out that it takes a 3/5th majority either way, now).

As you next post and Carole indicate, this might be moot a few days from now. But you never know...

Anonymous said...

The CTA employs (multiple?) professional lobbyists.

jackonthebus said...

The Tribune story indicates that the plan would be more phased (did Pace get a little more money?) but its essentials not otherwise altered. Given the e-mail, I certainly don't believe the following:
"We're not crying wolf here. These fare increases are real," said Pace Director Richard Pellegrino of Indian Head Park. "This is not a Machiavellian plan to get the legislature to react."

If not, they could have postponed the meeting and not sent the e-mail.

Justin said...

Hmmm... the line between advocacy and planning is very blurry (any urban planners out there heard of Paul Davidoff?) Moving Beyond Congestion was a a "strategic plan" that morphed into an advocacy campaign, right? I mean, it started out with technical planning, but then came out with phrases like "2007: The Year of Our Decision, Become a 'Partner for Transit'", and now the website urges direct citizen action. If all three service boards kicked in money for the MBC campain, perhaps Pace isn't the only guilty party?

I won't take sides on the issue, I'm just not surprised by it :|.

jackonthebus said...

Justin, I think that the funding advocacy was always the point of "Moving Beyond Congestion," but they needed a "strategic plan" to support that effort.

HealthyCity said...

This WHOLE thing was devised, strategized, planned and executed by Frank Kruesi many (many) years ago. We wouldn't be here talking if it hadn't been for the leader of a Service Board engaging in "political activity."

jackonthebus said...

Modifying my August 2 post, I see that the contingency plan posted on pacebus.com including the posting on Poorly Performing Routes Scheduled for Elimination wasn't as draconian as first proposed. More weekday service was preserved. Thus, Pace must have listened somewhat at the hearings. However, the feeder and weekend cuts are still scheduled for later in the year.

I guess what bothered me as using the hearings for excessive electioneering was the following from the e-mail: "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."

jackonthebus said...

healthycity: Correct. However, as it shakes out Frank's proposal of raise the collar counties to 1% and give the money to the CTA isn't going to be part of this solution, and Frank is gone (due to the Mayor, but not the CTA Board, which is supposed to exercise oversight).