Anonymous funders providing yard signs, mailers and a website opposing Brookhaven’s parks bond ballot question may be violating campaign finance laws, bond supporters allege. Some of the public opponents say that no laws are being broken and that others are remaining anonymous out of fear of retribution.
Parks bond supports say the secrecy being utilized by the “vote no” effort goes against the grain of the opponents’ key criticism that the city has not been transparent about the entire parks bond process. Those publicly speaking out against the parks bond say there is no organized effort by those funding a website, signs and mailer, and one person added it is none of anyone’s business who is paying for the private materials.
“It is ironic that this same group suggesting lack of transparency of our city’s government has apparently decided to ignore campaign finance laws,” said J.C. Clockadale, who is chairing the Yes for Brookhaven Parks group with former mayor Rebecca Chase Williams.
Clockadale says he’s especially concerned about the mailer because he believes its main claim is inaccurate. “It is unfortunate that a small group is using misinformation to try to prevent what will be a generational investment in our parks.
“The no mailer suggests an outrageous interest rate that is several points higher than current interest rates. The city recently received a triple AAA bond rating with this bond contemplated, therefore there is no way the interest rate will be as high as the opposition states,” he said.
Terrell Carstens, a member of the Parks and Recreation Coalition, said she only hears rumors about who may be paying for “vote no” materials like yard signs and a website.
“As far as I know there is not a ‘no campaign’ at all, just a private individual,” Carstens said in an email. “I haven’t seen any requests for donations or have been asked for money from anyone except the Yes Vote campaign.”
State law requires a ballot committee – a group formed to try to influence the vote of a local referendum – to register with the city only after having raised or spent $500 or more, according to the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission. If reports are not filed or filed late, penalties ranging from $125 to $1,000 can be assessed.
Robert S. Lane, deputy executive secretary of the Georgia Government Transparency & Campaign Finance Commission, said independent committees – including a “group of persons” working to affect the outcome of an election — are required by law to disclose their contributions and expenditures.
Ballot committees are subsets of independent committees, Lane explained. Independent committees that receive donations during a calendar year from members or supporters of the committee and who then spend those donations to advocate for one side of a ballot question are required by state law to publicly disclose the information, he said.
“A group of persons can constitute an independent committee, especially when those persons are coordinating their efforts to ensure they have a unified message,” Lane said.
Merely spending more than $500 does not necessarily trigger a reporting requirement, he said.
Ronnie Mayer, a vocal critic of the current city administration, said in an interview he has spent about $200 of his own money to make and distribute about 40 “vote no” yard signs. He was seen in his golf cart at the recent Brookhaven Arts Festival passing out the yard signs.
Mayer declined to name another person who he said was paying for other yard signs. He also declined to say what company was printing the signs and said he was told not to tell anyone who is paying for a “vote no” website. He added it was nobody’s business to know who was paying for yard signs or websites.
A recent issue of “a: Times News,” a newspaper that criticizes the parks bond and other city policies, included an ad for people to email a woman named Diane McMahon to get a “vote no” yard sign delivered. Emails sent to the address were not returned. A man who answered the phone at McMahon’s number declined to say who was paying for the yard signs. PARC members said they did not know who she was.
The “a: Times News” is owned by Laurenthia Mesh, who also owns Mesh Corners, a shopping center at the intersection of Johnson-Ferry and Ashford-Dunwoody roads. A person who answered the phone number listed for Laurenthia Mesh hung up without comment.
The owner of a “vote no” website registered the domain through an anonymous proxy company. An employee at the Florida based company said he could not reveal the owner’s identity.
Pat Hoban is the owner of Stone Mountain Nissan and was a leader in the cityhood movement and an original member of the Brookhaven Development Authority. He said in an interview he opposes the bond because he believes the city is not being fiscally conservative. He added that the city is calling it a $40 million parks bond, but after interest the total could come to $69 million.
He denied paying for the “vote no” website and said he “might know” – but would not identify – who is paying for the opposition materials, such as yard signs and a recent mailer that said the parks bond vote is a “$69,000,000 debt referendum.”
The “vote no” direct mailer includes a bulk mail permit number from the Kennesaw post office. The permit number is registered to 1st Class Mailing Service in Kennesaw, according to a post office representative. A spokesperson for 1st Class Mailing Service said his company specializes in mass mailings, including during political campaigns, but did not mail out the Brookhaven “vote no” direct mailer. He said people can use permit numbers by paying a one-time fee at the post office.
Hoban said those paying for the opposition materials could be coming from outside DeKalb County and could be professionals who handle those kinds of campaigns “all the time.” But he said he did not know who they were.
Carstens said she is being told some people are too afraid to speak out.
“People are afraid if they don’t do as they are told [and vote for the bond], their organizations won’t get something they are advocating for,” she said.
“It’s citywide. I can’t prove it. I’m just hearing from people … It’s just talk,” she added.
A member of the new Brookhaven Dog Park conservancy recently posted on social media urging people to vote for the parks bond because otherwise, the city would take away the dog park. Other members in the group argued that allegation was nothing more than fear-mongering. The city hosted a ribbon-cutting for the new dog park on Nov. 3.
City Councilmember Bates Mattison, whose district includes Brookhaven Park, denied the dog park rumor.
“I have no idea where that came from,” he said. “There is no way in good conscience the city would take away the dog park.”
Voters head to the polls Nov. 6 to vote on a $40 million parks bond to fund city parks capital project for 30 years.
Yes for Brookhaven Parks campaign
The Yes for Brookhaven Parks committee, headed up by former mayor Rebecca Chase Williams and former interim city manager J.D. Clockadale, was formed Sept. 7. According to an Oct. 22 campaign disclosure filed with the city, the group raised $27,120 and spent $13,845.77.
The Yes for Brookhaven Parks committee paid $11,271.90 to Sand Mountain Communications to serve as a campaign consultant and to pay for yard signs, direct mailers and information pamphlets. Another $128.87 was paid to Signs of Intelligence, a sign maker in Peachtree Corners.
Todd Rehm owns Sand Mountain Communications and is a Brookhaven resident who was also the campaign consultant for John Ernst when he ran for mayor.
Donations to the Yes for Brookhaven Parks campaign include $20,000 by Jon Akin, executive director of Brookhaven Community Futbol Club LLC, a nonprofit soccer organization for players ages three to 23. Akin, of Brookhaven, is also the men’s soccer coach at Oglethorpe University.
Other donors to the Yes for Brookhaven Parks campaign include: Rebecca Chase Williams, $3,000; City Councilmember Linley Jones of the Linley Jones Law Firm, $1,000; Friends of John Park campaign fund, $1,000; James Gallo, vice president of operations with construction company Pro Building Systems, $1,000; Dick Williams, publisher of the Dunwoody Crier [and Rebecca Chase Williams’ spouse], $250; Stan Segal, who serves as the chair of the Planning Commission; $250; and Elizabeth Pickett, $250. Only donations of more than $100 are required to be listed on the disclosure forms.
City education spending
The city spent $13,000 from the Parks and Recreation budget to pay for signs and poster boards used to provide information about the parks bond.
John Ruch contributed.