HANNIBAL, Mo. -- The Missouri Ethics Commission ruled last week Hannibal City Manager Jeff LaGarce violated ethics laws while developing and distributing materials discussing sales and use tax propositions the city had on an election ballot last spring.
In a Jan. 29 judgment, the six-member commission said it found probable cause that LaGarce used public funds to create a three-paneled brochure and six paid newspaper advertisements about Propositions 1 and 2 that included language that "advocated and supported" the measures. The commission also said the brochure did not include "paid-for- by" disclosure statements, while the disclosure statements in the advertisements did not include the "principal officer" and the mailing address for the city of Hannibal.
LaGarce was ordered to file a noncommittee expenditure report with the Marion County clerk and to pay a $1,900 fine. If LaGarce pays $280 and files the report within 45 days of the decision, the rest of the fine will be waived. Further violations of laws regarding public use of funds and "paid-for-by" disclosures would restore the waived portion of the fine.
LaGarce said Thursday he was weighing appealing the commission's ruling.
"I think (the commission has) overreached tremendously," he said. "Cities have always been permitted to educate their voters."
The Hannibal City Council voted in December 2014 to put two separate but related propositions on the April 7, 2015, ballot. Proposition 1 asked voters to allow the city to impose a 2.25 percent use tax on titled items purchased out of state in hopes of "eliminating an unfair advantage" vendors outside of Missouri were enjoying after the state's Supreme Court ruled against collecting sales tax on those items. Proposition 2 related to collecting sales tax on the registration of titled items, rather than the items themselves, when use tax does not apply.
About 60 percent of voters in Marion and Ralls counties approved the measures.
In its decision, the commission said LaGarce spent more than $1,800 in employee hours and printing costs to produce the brochures, which were distributed at public meetings and left in racks at City Hall and the Hannibal Free Public Library. Commissioners said language that, "when viewed as a whole, encouraged voters to favor" the propositions. Phrases including "Support Hannibal's Economy!" and "Stop out-of-state vendors from having an unfair sales advantage!" were cited in the decision.
Commissioners also said the advertisements, published in the Hannibal Courier-Post in March and April 2015, used language that suggested to voters "what tax policy should be, rather than informing voters what tax policy would be under Prop 1 and Prop 2."
LaGarce said the city would not have put tax measures on the ballot unless they were "designed to address something specific."