The city of Damascus has been instructed by the Secretary of State’s Office that staff can’t campaign for or against the disincorporation effort while on the clock — a reversal of its previous stance on the issue.

While backers of the disincorporation effort are thrilled with the about face, four of the city’s six city councilors are not. As a result, the council on Thursday, Aug. 29, voted 4-2 directing the city attorney to draft a letter challenging the Secretary of State’s new ruling.

Back when residents were still gathering signatures on the petition to put disincorporation before voters in November, the Secretary of State’s office determined that city employees could “engage in political activity during work hours regarding the disincorporation of the city,” according to a letter to City Manager Matt Zook dated Aug. 26, outlining the new interpretation.

Based on that ruling, Damascus city staff included information about the disincorporation effort in the city’s newsletter, including opinion pieces from city councilors who oppose disincorporation.

But the state’s opinion changed after the required signatures were collected and submitted to local elections officials, who as of Aug. 7, filed formal paperwork declaring the petition for disincorporation a measure to be voted on during the Nov. 5 election.

Once the petition became a ballot measure, state law took effect, said Gini Zejdlik, interim elections director, in her letter to Zook.

And state law states that public employees can’t promote or oppose the adoption of a measure, among other things.

Due to the mitigating circumstances, Damascus won’t face any sanctions or punishments for acting on the state office’s previous advice, which the state has since deemed to be “in error,” Zejdlik said. But now that another ruling has been issued, Damascus and its city staff is expected to comply.

“It is important to emphasize that you should immediately instruct city employees and the City Council on the conclusions of this letter so that they do not engage in conduct in the future that could subject them to sanctions,” Zejdlik wrote, concluding her letter.

Chris Hawes, spokesman for the disincorporation effort, said the Citizens Committee for Disincorporation is pleased by the revised ruling on the public use of funds for campaigning against disincorporation.

However, three days after the ruling came out, city councilors voted to use public funds to fight the ruling.

“Which means they will now use taxpayer’s funds to fight for the right to use more taxpayer’s funds to fight the taxpayers,” Hawes wrote in an email regarding the council’s vote.

Mayor Steve Spinnett and councilors Bill Wehr, Mel O’Brien and Jim De Young voted in favor of challenging the ruling. Councilor Randy Shannon and Council President Andrew Jackman voted against it.

Spinnett, who is against the disincorporation effort, said during the council meeting that he thinks there could be room for an argument against the ruling after speaking with representatives from the Secretary of State’s office.

Hawes agreed on the complexity of the matter. The state had said when it issued its first ruling that by state statute, disincorporation is different from other types of ballot measures.

“The statutes are confused when it comes to different types of petitions, which is what opened the loophole before we were certified as a measure,” Hawes wrote. “The statute makes no distinction of how a measure got to be a measure, it just says you can’t use public resources to advocate for or against it. It seems pretty clear to us.”

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