Six Arizona counties and towns appear to have broken the law by adopting resolutions opposing a ballot measure to boost the use of renewable energy in the state, according to letters sent Thursday by the Attorney General’s Office.
The letters state that evidence provided in a complaint by Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix “appear to show” that officials in the six counties and towns violated an explicit ban on the use of public resources to influence elections.
Those six municipalities — the Chino Valley Town Council, the Pinetop-Lakeside Town Council, the Snowflake Town Council, and the Gila, Greenlee and Navajo County boards of supervisors — adopted resolutions opposing Proposition 127, which would constitutionally require most Arizona utility providers to generate 50 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2030.
The complaint followed a report by the Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewable energy organization, that detailed a campaign by Arizona Public Service and its backers to urge counties and towns across Arizona to pass similar resolutions.
Gila, Greenlee and Navajo Counties, and the town of Snowflake, adopted resolutions that explicitly “urge residents to vote no on the initiative.”
Pinetop officials, apparently wary of violating state law, skirted the issue by adopting a resolution opposing the initiative but omitting language explicitly advocating residents to vote yes or no, according to the report by the Energy and Policy Institute.
Those resolutions and others were later touted by Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, the political action committee funded by APS’s parent company.
Citing the Institute’s reporting, Clark wrote to Attorney General Mark Brnovich on Oct. 23, saying that officials with APS “have been badgering county and local officials and their staff with requests to adopt a formal resolution opposing Prop 127… by adopting resolutions opposing the ballot measure, those jurisdictions have used taxpayer dollars to weigh in on a political fight, which is clearly against state laws.”
State attorneys seem to agree, as the letters sent to those six counties and towns request information about the resolutions adopted by the municipalities, and “reasons why the (county or town’s) actions should not be considered a violation of ARS 11-410.”
The letters, sent by the Attorney General’s Government Accountability, Special Litigation and Antitrust section, request a response by Nov. 8, two days after the General Election.
If found in violation of the law, the respective elected officials in the counties and towns, and perhaps some county and town employees, could be assessed civil penalties of up to $5,000, the letters warn.
Matthew Benson, spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, said the law is being twisted in this instance by supporters of the failing Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona campaign. The ban on use of public resources in electioneering is intended to prevent elected officials from spending public dollars in an effort to advance a political campaign, he said.
There was no public expense to the taxpayers when the local governing boards passed the resolutions. The elected officials from these localities were just trying to inform their constituents on an issue that would affect their community, Benson said.
“This is a complete perversion of what the law is intended to prevent,” he said.
The municipalities aren’t the only ones under the Attorney General’s scrutiny. Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin was sent a similar letter questioning a press release Tobin released with a statement in his official capacity as a commissioner opposing Prop. 127.
Kory Langhofer, an elections attorney, said the email sent via the Corporation Commission’s formal communications channels likely used a trivial amount of public resources, and wouldn’t warrant any action under law.
Clark’s complaint urged the AG’s Office to investigate not just the counties and towns, but also APS officials “who put pressure on local public employees to use public resources to promote the private interests of APS regarding Prop. 127 in violation of state law.”
Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the letters are the first step in a fact finding, and declined to speculate if state attorneys would pursue any action against APS.
As for the timing of the allowable time for response — county and town officials don’t have to respond until after the election — Anderson said two weeks notice is a standard time given to individuals subject to their investigations.
Staff writer Carmen Forman contributed to this report.
This story was updated from it’s original version to include information about a similar focus by the Attorney General’s Office on Arizona Corporation Commission member Andy Tobin.