Portola Valley postcard: message between lines?
Timing, it's said, is everything. So what led town staff in Portola Valley to mail residents a postcard on Aug. 4 informing them of the town's serious and unprecedented budget issues three months ahead of an election that would reauthorize the utility users tax? The tax brings in 10 percent of the town's revenue.
A municipal government is not allowed to take a position on an election issue, and the postcard's language does not take one; it doesn't even mention the utility tax. But a skeptical reader, seeing lists of reduced services, pared back plans, lower revenues and higher expenses, could also see a message to voters: renew the tax.
Voters reauthorized the tax by majorities of 72 percent in 2001 and 52 percent in 2005. The current $5.5 million budget is balanced and anticipates $556,000 in revenues from the 4.5 percent tax on residential and commercial utility bills.
A persistent utility tax opponent, resident Ed Wells, saw a message in the postcard. "I think it has to do with just mobilizing public information in connection with the upcoming utility users tax election," he told The Almanac.
The potential for inadvertent advocacy should have been considered by the full council, council members Maryann Moise Derwin and Richard Merk said in interviews.
"Someone should have asked these questions before it went out, and I don't think anyone did, and that concerns me," Mr. Merk said.
"I think we have to be very, very sensitive on this issue," Ms. Derwin said. The advocacy potential is there, she noted, adding: "I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am."
Mayor Ann Wengert said in an interview that staff had been fielding residents' budget-related questions recently and that the postcard conveys information about the town's financial condition. People can interpret the information as they choose, she said.
There was no ulterior motive, Town Manager Angie Howard said. "It seemed like a good idea to send something out to reassure the community that we're OK," she said. "I did not think this was controversial."