As we reported Wednesday, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan is under fire from opponents for his decision to spend around $130,000 in public money on a billboard campaign featuring his image in the months leading up to the August 30 primary election.
But our research shows that Morgan’s decision isn’t the first time area public officials have used public dollars to fund billboards and other advertisements.
Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones said Thursday that his office has purchased billboards annually for at least the last ten years to inform residents of the March 1 deadline for property owners to file for homestead exemptions. Jones said the billboards do feature his picture, arguing that it helps draw attention to the message. “We tried it without my picture one year and got measurably less of a response,” said Jones.
Morgan’s political opponents have taken issue with the fact that the sheriff’s publicly-funded billboard campaign runs through August 21, just nine days before the decisive primary elections. Jones said his billboards only run through late February and thus haven’t coincided with election campaigns. Escambia County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka said Thursday that county officials can’t recall anytime when a county commissioner’s photograph has been used on a billboard.
Beyond billboards, though, other area elected officials have used taxpayer dollars for public information efforts featuring themselves. Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward appears on email newsletters and social media posts funded by public money, tools his office has said help keep citizens informed and engaged. Escambia County commissioners regularly appear on the county’s public access television channel to discuss a variety of issues, though commissioners seeking reelection are barred by county policy from appearing on the channel during the 90 days leading up to an election, except for regularly scheduled meetings.
Across the county, laws on the subject vary. In Washington, state law prohibits elected officials from appearing within public service announcements and other advertisements during an election year. A similar law in Kansas bars elected officials’ names or images from appearing in advertisements within 60 days of an election. The Kansas law was passed in 2011 after an increasing number of state officials were criticized for spending taxpayer dollars on election-year advertisements.
Florida law prohibits elected officials from “[using] his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of … coercing or influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof,” but doesn’t specifically address the appearance by officials on billboards and other public service advertisements.
Morgan’s office has not returned a number of phone calls and emails seeking comment. Approached by a Pulse reporter after a candidate debate Thursday, Morgan declined to speak about the billboard issue.