April 26, 2005
By: Mary M. Janicki, Director
You asked a series of questions, which are answered separately below, about the rules and procedures for advocating a position on a municipal referendum.
As you know, the Office of Legislative Research is not authorized to issue legal opinions and this memorandum should not be considered as one. On the other hand, the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) responds to fact-specific questions on the interpretation of the law on this matter. Its website includes guidelines on the Prohibition on Expenditure of Public Funds Relating to Referenda (copy attached).
Generally, “no expenditure of state or municipal funds shall be made to influence any person to vote for approval or disapproval of any proposal or question” (CGS § 9-369b). A town or regional school board may prepare an explanatory text that concisely describes the referendum issue and disseminate other neutral printed material. In addition, a town may authorize, through an ordinance, the preparation and printing of summaries of arguments for and against a local question. A committee that represents various viewpoints on a proposal must develop the arguments. To the extent practicable, the committee must solicit public comment on the summaries and either the town's legislative body or another body designated in the ordinance must approve the summaries. Each summary must include a disclaimer that it does not represent the official position of the town.
Do election laws preclude citizens from touring town property to be repaired that is the subject of a referendum?
No. It would be up to the town to make arrangements for any tour.
Are municipal employees banned from attending meetings or speaking on issues subject to a referendum?
No, a town or school district employee is not prohibited from expressing his views on a referendum; however, a municipal official may be. The official can express his views on a pending referendum at a news conference or interview or to respond to a constituent's request for information. But the official cannot use public funds to respond to the request if he knows that the response will be disseminated to others in the community.
Can a PTO invite advocacy groups to speak at its meetings? Must it invite groups that represent both supporters and opponents of an issue?
A PTO can sponsor an informational forum or meeting to discuss its position on a referendum question. It need not invite representatives to present both sides of the proposal. However, the PTO cannot use school resources such as copiers, student mailboxes, or mailing lists or labels to disseminate its message.
Use of a school facility is permitted by outside political committees and organizations (such as the PTO) for meetings to discuss a referendum as long as the facilities are accessible to all such committees or groups on a nondiscriminatory basis.
Do superintendents of schools and other town management staff generally meet with teachers and other town employees to advocate for or against a particular project that is the subject of a referendum?
School superintendents and town officials are free to express their opinions about a pending referendum, but must avoid doing so when they are being paid in their official capacity or using public resources.
In order to hold a forum on both sides of a question, a town must have first adopted the ordinance referred to in statute.
Is an advocacy group prohibited from using a town building if a construction project was planned on that building?
No, as long as the group has the proper approvals for using the facility. It is not clear that we have enough information to adequately address this question, but equal access to all groups would be required.
Does the ban on using public resources to influence the vote on a referendum extend to incidental expenses like heat or electricity in a building where an advocacy group might meet?
Technically, there is no exception for a de minimus expenditure in the law banning the use of public funds to promote or oppose a pending referendum. However, Attorney Joan Andrews at the SEEC notes that the commission would typically have to find a discrete expenditure in order to find a violation, which would not likely include a portion of spending for heat or electricity.
The issue of impartial access to facilities described above would also apply to this circumstance.