Morris vs. Navickas: a post-mortem

I supported Mike Morris over Eric Navickas in the Ashland councilor election because I thought — and still think — he was the better candidate, but I feel very uncomfortable about the role played in the election by the political action committee known as the League of Ashland Voters.

LAV spent nearly $6,000 in the election, mostly on quarter-page ads against Navickas, while each of the candidates themselves spent about $2,000, pretty much an average amount for councilor candidates (the agreed-upon limit was $3,213). That tilted the role of money heavily in favor of Morris. To his credit, Morris has spoken out against PACs in local elections and there is no reason to believe he was anything other than a passive beneficiary of LAV's ads.

Some of the largest contributions to LAV in 2010, and in the runup to the 2008 election, were from some of the larger developers and businesses in the valley (Adroit Construction, Ashland Shopping Center, Neuman Properties and Development and the CEO of Lithia Motors, to name a few). Although they are entitled to express their point of view through a PAC, the disproportinate influence of pro-business and development money is undeniable.

Also troubling is the name LAV chose for itself — League of Ashland Voters. The LAV has denied any attempt to mislead voters into thinking they are the venerable League of Women Voters, but the resemblance is so obvious that LAV must have known the name would cause confusion, and we have to ask whether it couldn't have chosen another name.

The LAV ads attacking Navickas often quoted him and appeared to be carefully limited to the council record. Undoubtedly, the ads raised some important issues. Navickas, however, has complained that his statements and votes were taken out of context. I don't know if they were, but I do know from practicing law that it is difficult to rebut such allegations by establishing context, especially if your only forum is quarter-page newspaper ads that cost $500 each. Once again, corporate money played a role.

The numerous LAV attacks on Navickas give us a foretaste of what we can expect to follow from the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Corporations can now directly fund unlimited attack ads ("political expressions"), while individual candidates without such backing may find themselves, like Navickas, twisting in the wind.

As a result, transparency has become more important than ever. The identity of donors to a PAC such as LAV was especially important in a town such as Ashland, where development is such a big issue. The names and amounts donated could and should have been published by LAV so citizens could readily access the information. Instead LAV chose to merely list in one of its ads the professions of its donors (teacher, business executive, etc.) without any names. One of LAV's principals was quoted as saying that LAV will not reappear at the next election unless there is a countervailing PAC on the other side. Let's hope we never see another one on any side of any issue.

Robert Staal


Share This Story