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Was parks mailer campaign material?

by Mark Vasto
Landmark reporter

With less than one month until Election Day, Jim Plunkett, candidate for the District 2 Platte County Commissioner seat, is alleging unfair campaign practices on the part of incumbent Steve Wegner and the Platte County Commission.

Plunkett and Wegner will square off in the Republican primary on Aug. 3. There is no Democratic candidate, so the primary is basically for all the marbles.

At issue is a public mailing from the county’s public affairs division entitled Platte County Parks & Recreation Explorer. The full-color, six-page, newsletter contains a note from the commission on the front page and five stories detailing the progress of park projects in the county throughout. Although the piece doesn’t make mention of the upcoming election, Plunkett feels that the mailing was inappropriate.

“There almost using it, in my opinion, as an election piece,” Plunkett alleged. Even though Plunkett acknowledged the commission had plans to send out newsletters, he said that it “just seemed peculiar that this comes along during an election.”

Plunkett said he objected to the general format of the publication, particularly the back cover, which featured a picture of the commissioners. He also questioned the cost.

“Knowing from what I’ve spent (on campaign literature), that was an expensive piece that went out. My guess is that it cost $30 - $40,000.”

Plunkett guessed that the newsletter was also being distributed countywide.

“If it is, that not only benefits Steve (Wegner) but it’s also beneficial to Michael (District 1 Commissioner Michael Short, who is also seeking reelection),” Plunkett said. He stepped up his charges when he learned the piece was only sent to registered voters.

“This seems awful obvious,” Plunkett remarked. “They sent it to voters and not all the residents. They’re using it for a political piece, rather than to educate or inform. If they had done this in September, it would be a different story.”

Kevin Kuzma, Platte County’s public affairs officer, denied that the mailing was a campaign piece. A former journalist who designed, wrote and took pictures for the newsletter, Kuzma said the project went out to bid in the commission’s media package, which was voted on in January 2004. Although Kuzma was unable to furnish the mailing costs for the piece as of press time, he defended the newsletter’s estimated $9,900 printing price tag.

“The county has purchased a significant amount of land,” Kuzma said. “We went from one 12-acre park to having more than 400 acres. We needed a publication that reflected this.”

In recent years, Kuzma said, the commission wanted to upgrade its former two-sheet newsletter and the current mailings are the realization of that goal.

“The county’s strategic plan calls for it to issue annual communications to citizens regarding the latest progress on projects related to the plan’s advancement,” Kuzma explained. “Every year, we produce two Citizen Update newsletters and two parks and recreation newsletters – one per season.”

Kuzma said the commission decided to start developing the newsletter two years ago, and initially offered it only via email to about 2,500 people. Using Internet tracking software, Kuzma said the newsletter was forwarded about 700 times. That activity proved, Kuzma said, constituents wanted the information.

“We had always intended on eventually publishing it,” Kuzma said. “This was for the residents who didn’t have an Internet connection or who just didn’t want to spend time on our website looking for it.”
According to Kuzma, the county
’s summer edition of the Citizen Update newsletter is presently in development and will be ready for distribution in late July. The commission addressed that production schedule, Kuzma said, and at their discretion will not mail it until after the August election.

“This is an election year so I understand the added sensitivity,” Kuzma said. “But Platte County is a government body. We’re not going to temporarily shut down.”

Wegner agreed and sought to frame criticism as another political attack from Plunkett.

“Government doesn’t stop because of elections,” countered Wegner. “I have made a real effort to keep my constituents informed and this is not the first (newsletter) this commission has put out. We sent one out two months ago…before Mr. Plunkett made it a political issue.”

Wegner said that although the idea of the newsletter becoming political fodder for his opponents had “crossed his mind,” he felt it was more important to keep people informed. He defended the commission’s choice to send the newsletter solely to registered voters in the county.

“These are the people who participate in government,” Wegner stated. “It’s a cost thing. If we mailed to every address in the county we’d be mailing to second homes, apartments, post office boxes…we’ve always only mailed to registered voters.”

According to Mike Reed, director of compliance for the Missouri Ethics Commission, complaints regarding campaign matters can be directed to his office.

“If anyone believes there is a violation of the law that has occurred, they can file a complaint,” Reed said, adding that he would not be able to verify if any complaint has been filed or even investigated. “We work off complaints, and we keep them confidential.”

Kuzma said his office has received no complaints.

“In fact, we’ve only heard positive things.”



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