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PDC says Bellevue broke law with parks-levy polling

The state Public Disclosure Commission has charged two Bellevue Parks officials with violating campaign law to help pass a $40 million parks levy in 2008.

The commission alleges that Parks Department director Patrick Foran and fiscal manager Doug Sanner authorized the funding of two public opinion polls that targeted registered voters and supported passage of the ballot measure.

State law prohibits the use of public resources to benefit a campaign.

The city conducted two polls asking how likely voters would be to support various levels of taxation.

The surveys also tested how various pro- and anti-levy phrases would affect voter support for a potential ballot measure.

One question asked voters if the statement "This measure will help protect water quality in Bellevue's creeks, streams, and Lake Washington" would make them more likely to approve the levy.

PDC guidelines disallow polls and surveys intended to garner support for a ballot measure or determine how much taxation the public would support.

Bellevue spokesman Tim Waters said the city considers those guidelines to be confusing.

"We don't think there was a violation committed by the city," he said. "Our intent was to conduct an informational survey to determine support for the measure before spending a ton of money to put it before voters. We wanted to do the right thing and the smart thing."

A hearing will take place Jan. 27 with the PDC chair. Bellevue faces a maximum fine of $500.

The PDC charges stem from reports of campaign misconduct from Steve Finley, a former consultant for the Bellevue Parks Yes committee.

Finley supplied the PDC with evidence that the city had shared results from its surveys with the pro-levy campaign and also coordinated city communications about the ballot measure with political advertising from that group.

The PDC determined there was not enough evidence to sustain charges for those allegations.

Finley provided e-mails showing that Foran gave the Bellevue Parks Yes committee a list of contractors that the parks department frequently works with.

Bellevue Parks Yes campaign manager Karen Roper e-mailed Finley about the list, writing: "Patrick has his staff working on this."

"We were going to do a letter to the vendors," Finley told the reporter in October 2008.

Foran was a campaigner for the Bellevue Parks Yes committee. Public officials can work on behalf of ballot measures, but state law says they have to do it on their own time, and without public resources.

Foran provided a list of contractors to the pro-levy campaign without making a request for public documents. This blurred the line between whether he was working on behalf of the city or the Bellevue Parks Yes group.

The 2008 parks levy passed with support from an overwhelming 67 percent of voters.

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