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Parks director crosses line in campaign for pool proposal

South Whidbey parks director Terri Arnold said it was a careless error when she improperly used a parks district computer to campaign on behalf of the parks’ $15.2 million bond measure for a new pool and rec center.

Arnold sent a strongly worded “vote yes” letter to three newspapers earlier this month, but state law prohibits using public resources to campaign for or against ballot measures or candidates.

“I admit I made a mistake,” Arnold said. “I did it in haste and don’t plan on doing it again.”

“It was never meant to run afoul of any laws,” she said.

Arnold sent a letter to the editor to local newspapers on Sept. 5. In the letter, Arnold asked voters to approve the district’s November ballot measure.

“I hope you will use not only your pen but your heart when you get your ballot and cast a ‘Yes’ vote for the Community Recreation Center,” Arnold wrote.

Using public facilities to advocate a ballot measure position is a violation of Washington’s campaign laws.

Phil Stutzman, director of compliance for the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, the state’s watchdog on campaigns, said the law prohibits the use of public facilities, but also said he could not comment without knowing more about the case.

If a formal complaint were made, Stutzman said the commission’s staff would investigate the matter and the commission would later determine if a violation had occurred.

Generally, he said the law prohibits the use of public facilities, including district computers, to support or oppose a ballot proposition.

The parks district is asking voters in November to approve a $15.2 million bond to pay for the construction of an aquatics and recreation center.

A letter to the editor supporting a ballot proposition is seen as a private activity, which employees of public agencies can do — including using their title in the letter — so long as they do so with private resources, Stutzman said.

Arnold also used her computer at work for other campaign-related activity. According to e-mails obtained through a public records request, Arnold sent e-mails from her office to a part-time district employee, park summer camp director Adele Sanders, offering advice on how Sanders could compose her own letter to the editor that would support the proposed recreation center.

In addition, Arnold wrote from her office to a saleswoman at a sign company to get two large banners created that would be set up at the entrance to the Community Park on Maxwelton Road in time for last weekend’s Children’s Day at the park.

The banners read: “Future Site of the South Whidbey Community Recreation Center.”

Arnold said the banners — costing $180 and paid for out of the district’s printing budget — were in response to questions from people wondering where the center would be located.

Arnold said the signs were educational, and not an attempt to sway voters’ opinions.

“We want to be pro-active and we owe it to people to tell them,” Arnold explained. “The center is in our master plan and this will be the site whenever the levy passes; next year or 10 years from now.”

All of the e-mails were sent from dirswprd@whidbey.com, Arnold’s e-mail account at her office in Community Park.

Arnold said that she does a lot of work from home and sent the letter to herself at the office, then out to the media.

However, Arnold could not provide any record showing that the e-mail was sent from her home to the district’s office. The Record requested all e-mails that were sent to her park district account from Sept. 2 through Sept. 9, but the e-mail Arnold said she sent from home was not included in the e-mails provided to The Record.

Repeated attempts to get Arnold to address the inconsistency were unsuccessful; Arnold has not returned repeated phone calls from The Record since Monday.

Parks commission chairwoman Linda Kast said parks officials did not condone the use of district resources on the campaign.

“If in fact Terri was using her time and the park’s computer to advocate for the bond measure, then she made a mistake,” Kast said.

The use of taxpayer-funded resources on political campaigns has garnered much attention this election season.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen was repeatedly criticized by the state Republican Party for using public funds on her reelection campaign in the 10th District after she opened a staff office in Oak Harbor.

Haugen denied the accusations, and the state Republican Party never offered proof to back up its claims and never filed a complaint over its allegations.

Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell was also accused of using public resources on his campaign after he had an assistant make phone calls to get the commissioner a spot in Coupeville’s Memorial Day parade.

McDowell later apologized, and gave the county treasurer’s office a check for $14 to pay for the time the county employee spent on his campaign.

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