Olympia resident accuses city staff of producing biased RFA mailer, files complaint with Public Disclosure Commission


Robert Shirley, a private citizen of Olympia, filed a complaint against Olympia’s city staff with the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) on Wednesday, April 12, for using city resources to promote a ballot measure, a violation of Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 42.17A.555.

Shirley argued that Olympia’s staff produced and distributed a mailer that is supportive of a ballot measure seeking to form the Olympia-Tumwater Regional Fire Authority (RFA).

The public is set to vote on the ballot measure at the April 25 election. If approved, the RFA would replace the fire departments in both cities and consolidate their resources to provide fire protection and emergency services in both jurisdictions.

The two cities worked together to distribute 44,758 mailers about the ballot measure during the first week of April containing a panel explaining the purpose, governance, and funding of the RFA as well as a panels showing what the ballot measure would look like and a four-part explainer on RFA’s priorities. The front page of the mailer also indicates that it is “for information purposes only” and that it does not intend to support or oppose the ballot measure.

It cost the two cities $9,057.63 to print the material and $13,184.75 to mail them, confirmed by Kellie Purce Braseth, Olympia’s strategic communications director. Braseth added that Tumwater covered a third of the cost.

Features of the mailer

Shirley asserted in his complaint that the content of the mailer was not an objective and fair presentation of the facts, especially the four-part explainer which promised enhanced services when they were, according to Shirley, irrelevant to the ballot measure.

These panels, in the mailer sent to residents in Olympia and Tumwater, are cited in an April 12, 2023 complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission.
These panels, in the mailer sent to residents in Olympia and Tumwater, are cited in an April 12, 2023 complaint to the Public Disclosure Commission.

The mailer states that the RFA would prioritize the following:

  • Stabilize funding using dedicated sources
  • Meet the needs of growing communities
  • Maintain a healthy workforce
  • Increase service efficiencies

“The flyer is misleading to the extent it focuses on fire and EMS activities, including promises of new and enhanced services when the ballot measure is concerned with administration and funding and not with activities and services,” Shirley alleged in his complaint.

Shirley also took issue with the mailer not explaining the impact of new fees on taxpayers, particularly with the potential increase of the median total property tax bill, saying that this lack of information indicated that the mail piece supported the ballot measure through the omission of facts.

The overview section of the mailer did explain that the RFA would be funded through four sources: a property tax levy of up to $1.00 per $1,000 assessed value, a fire benefit charge, countywide EMS levy revenues, and contract revenues and fees for services and grants.

The mailer states that the fire benefit charge is a national standard based on the size of a building and that one could get an estimate for their building on RFA’s website, a comment that has been disputed by opponents of the proposition.

Shirley also took issue with the mailer not providing any links to the RFA plan, which the public would vote to approve as part of the ballot measure.

City staff responsible for the mailer involved in similar 2019 incident

Shirley requested to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) that the following Olympia staff members should be fined for the production and distribution of the mailers: City Manager Jay Burney, City Attorney Mark Barber, Assistant City Attorney Michael M. Young and Strategic Communications Director Kellie Purce Braseth.

He stated that these employees should have been aware that they were committing a violation of the RCW as Olympia’s city staff was involved in a similar incident in 2019.

The PDC found former Olympia City Manager Steve Hall responsible for producing and distributing mailers that explicitly opposed a statewide initiative to limit vehicle tab fees to $30 a year.

Shirley noted in his filing that the employees he included in his complaint were already in their positions during the 2019 incident, except for Burney who was assistant city manager.

Sought for comment yesterday Burney told The JOLT that the city has not yet received a notice from PDC about the complaint and would therefore not be able to make a response.

Shirley also requested that the PDC determine if Mayor Cheryl Selby should also be held accountable about the alleged issues regarding the mailing. Though the PDC’s 2019 decision found no elected official responsible for the violation, Shirley stated that PDC wrote to Mayor Selby in 2020 advising her to review a PDC interpretation, which required supervisory personnel to inform and communicate with their staff about the inappropriate promotion of ballot measures.

Tumwater not included, not exempt either

Though Tumwater coordinated with Olympia in the production and distribution of mailers, Shirley told The JOLT that he was not comfortable filing a complaint against Tumwater city officials as he was not knowledgeable enough about the operations of the city. He did believe that PDC has enough information to determine whether to review the actions of Tumwater’s city staff.

“My understanding is the PDC can initiate a complaint in the event it becomes aware of any apparent violations, including an apparent violation of RCW 42.17A.555,” Shirley stated in an email to The JOLT, adding, “There is sufficient information in the complaint for the PDC to determine if it should consider a review of the actions of Tumwater elected officials and employees.”

Tumwater Communications Manager Ann Cook told The JOLT that they have also not yet seen the complaint and that it would be premature to comment on the issue.