Propaganda is defined as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also, a public action having such an effect” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Several people among the Holmes Beach electorate say a mailing received in their mailboxes Nov. 4 from Mayor Carmel Monti was designed to sway the Nov. 5 election toward candidates of his choice. The critics say city funds were misused on Monti’s mailer.
Monti’s seven-page mailer highlighted his administration’s accomplishments the past year, including a claim that taxes have not increased since he took office almost a year ago. While the millage rate stayed the same, taxes and spending increased by more than 5 percent in Monti’s first budget year.
He also touted accomplishments in finance, building and public works, administration, police and code enforcement.
The mailer made no specific mention of the Nov. 5 election or any candidate, but made note of a “criminal investigation” regarding “the former building (department) administration and a company doing work for the city.”
Monti said the case is with the state attorney’s office, and the city plans to seek $92,830.50 in restitution. The city claims payments made included work that was not performed by the contractor.
He also said towing of illegally parked vehicles has increased and “this was not done before.”
The mayor thanked city commissioners for “making this a successful year.”
Melissa Williams, one of five running for three commission seats in the Nov. 5 municipal election, along with former Mayor Rich Bohnenberger and former Pennsylvania legislator Scott Boyd, said Monti was wrong to use city staff and funds on his “Year End Report for City Hall — Let’s Celebrate Our Success.”
Williams said she was “disgusted to learn that the city’s money was used as a political tool. As a candidate, I’m not surprised. The gross misuse of city hall power continues.”
She added that this type of misuse of public funds needs to cease, and that she hoped to provide a check and balance on city spending, but was unsuccessful as a candidate.
“No matter which way you look at it, of course, it was unethical. This is not Holmes Beach,” Williams said, reflecting on past cooperation among elected officials.
The critics also noted there was false information contained in the mailer, particularly the mayor’s claim that taxes were not increased in his term in office.
City clerk Stacey Johnston confirmed the mailer was sent to a Holmes Beach voter’s list obtained from the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office.
Johnston said staff copied the two-sided three-page letter and a sample property tax notice, folded and placed them in envelopes and labeled them with the voter address. Only one letter was mailed to each address, she said.
The mailing was handled by AMPM Mailing Service of Bradenton, at a cost of $775.49, Johnston said.
The process to print and fold copies and stuff the envelopes took city hall staff about two weeks, she said, but it was done by staff in addition to other duties.
In addition, Commissioners Jean Peelen, Judy Titsworth and Marvin Grossman assisted in the process, Johnston said.
Johnston said the process used 8,096 sheets of paper and 2,024 envelopes for mailing. AMPM invoiced for 2,482 pieces mailed. The bulk mail postage was $573.42 plus 15 foreign pieces at $1.10 each, or $16.50.
She said she would have to do some calculations to determine the cost of paper and envelopes, and she referred the staff cost to the mayor.
The city, by ordinance, charges the newspaper 15 cents per page and 20 cents for two-sided copies of records. At that rate, based on 2,482 mailed pieces, the copies amount to $1,861.50.
Monti said the cost was minimal compared to having voters know what is happening in the city.
Boyd, who moved to Holmes Beach in January and served 10 years in the Pennsylvania Legislature, was outraged to learn city money was used by Monti to “further his political agenda.”
Boyd said he’s never heard of a mayor who can use city money to highlight his or her agenda or accomplishments. Boyd also noted Monti said his letter was a “year-end report” but it arrived in the mail Nov. 4, while Monti was sworn into office Nov. 15, 2012.
“It’s a small point, but it’s not quite a year,” Boyd said. There weren’t a great number of accomplishments in his first few weeks or months in office and the budget had already been set for the year.
“But using public funds is a big point. When any elected representative, from the president to the governor, a state representative, a county commissioner or mayor uses his or her official position and taxpayer resources to affect the outcome of an election, there is reason for concern,” Boyd said.
“If it’s not illegal, it should be and, at the least, it’s unethical,” he said. “We expect our elected officials to do what’s right, not just what is legal.”
Boyd suggested Monti should have used his own money — or campaign funds — if he wanted to mail out a list of his achievements to voters.
Bohnenberger, who lost to Monti in 2012, said he gave an annual report presentation and copies to the commission at a public meeting and also furnished it to the news media.
“It’s an outrageous waste of taxpayer money for the city to pay for the mailing,” Bohnenberger said.
“Additionally, the letter only went to voters, not residents or property owners. That’s a selected list done obviously to promote the election,” he said.
“Every property owner, every resident, deserves the same information. That’s why I gave my report to the media. The mayor’s report is for everybody with a vested interest in Holmes Beach,” Bohnenberger said.
Monti, however, said he saw nothing wrong with mailing voters an update.
“I sent out an update at six months and now at 12 months,” Monti said. “I’ve gotten so many compliments from voters thanking me for keeping them up-to-date. Many said it’s the first time in 20 years they knew what was going on at city hall. I feel it’s necessary and it’s my duty to inform citizens.”
Monti said the timing of the report just happened to be before the election.
Asked why he didn’t release his report to the news media, Monti said he wanted to make sure the full content of his report was available to read.
As of last week, no official complaint had been filed with either the Florida Ethics Commission or the Florida Elections Commission.
A lawyer with the FEC said a formal complaint on misuse of public funds would have to be filed and the nine-member commission would consider if it was unethical. Each complaint is handled on an individual basis, the lawyer said.
To her knowledge, there is no statute the prohibits such mailings, as long as there is no request for funds, a campaign endorsement or even a hint of support for a candidate in that governing area in the mailer.
She referred to Section 112.313(6) of the FEC opinions on misuse of public funds.
That section states, in part, that “whether a corrupt misuse of official position has occurred in a given situation depends on how and for what purpose the stationery will be used, rather than upon the fact of its use.”
Monti’s mail, approximate costs
AMPM fees, including postage: $775.49
Copies (3 two-sided pages, one single page):
Envelopes (6 boxes, 500 each): $51.00
Staff time (composition, copying, folding, stuffing):
Commissioners time: Priceless