A number of signs supporting Tuesday’s general purpose tax caused concern at the Sweetwater County Clerk’s Office as some residents believed the signs to violate Wyoming’s electioneering laws.
The signs started appearing in Rock Springs and Green River late last week, reading “Created to Support Public Safety & Economic Development,” then urging residents to vote Nov. 2.
“I have had people calling me all day,” Sweetwater County Clerk Cindy Lane said Friday.
The issue callers have had with the signs is that they didn’t initially identify who paid for them, resulting in questions regarding if they’re legal campaign advertisements. Lane said she had called the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office to get an opinion as to how she should proceed and if the signs did violate the law.
According to Wyoming Statute 22-25-10, candidates, their supporters, political action committees and organizations cannot pay for campaign literature or advertising without printing information about who is paying for the advertising. However, the statute does not include small campaign items, such as buttons, stickers, balloons and yard signs, which prompted the call. The office later told Lane the signs were in violation of election laws.
Lane said she contacted the Green River Chamber of Commerce to inquire if the chamber paid for the signs. Lane said an unidentified employee she spoke with initially told her they didn’t know anything about the signs, but said later she found small stickers placed on the bottom of the signs identifying they were paid for by the chamber. Lane said she later received calls from residents claiming the stickers are too small to see.
Lane said she could have had the signs removed even with the stickers on, as they are not conspicuous enough for people looking at the signs to see, however, opted to let them stand as the chamber complied with her earlier request. Lane said she was told eight signs were printed, with seven being placed in Rock Springs and Green River. As of Monday, two of the signs in Rock Springs were vandalized with spray paint.
The Green River Chamber of Commerce did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
According to email communications from the county commissioners requested by the Green River Star, an email discussion about the need for campaign signs took place Oct. 19 between Commissioner Lauren Schoenfeld and Kaylee Hughes, the communications director for SweetwaterNOW and a designer with its affiliate business Rocket City Creative, with Commissioner Roy Lloyd added as a CC.
Schoenfeld noted the need after seeing signs from the Sweetwater GOP opposing the tax, writing “we need to get a few of the big signs out.” Schoenfeld asked Hughes to design a sign, providing both the language used in the sign and a suggested color scheme. She also said she wasn’t aware what the sizes should be, making a suggestion to ask Model Signs in Rock Springs.
“Just a thought, could that be considered campaigning and not informiational (sic)? Just thinking out loud,” Lloyd asked in a following email.
“Yes, it will not be paid for by the County,” Schoenfeld responded.
A draft of the signs’ design was shared in an Oct. 20 email between Schoenfeld, Lloyd, Green River City Administrator Reed Clevenger, Green River Grants Administrator Ryan Rust, Green River Communication Administrator Steve Core, Green River City Attorney Galen West, Sweetwater County Attorney Dan Erramouspie and Deputy Sweetwater County Attorney John DeLeon.
Signs were always a part of the proposed marketing push for the tax. Hughes initially presented members attempting to market the tax proposal to voters with a $30,000 proposal heavily focused on election signs, bulk mailing and digital advertising. That effort changed when local governments were told by the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office taxpayer funds could not be used to promote a tax, only to provide education to residents about why they’re seeking an additional sales tax. According to Hughes’ proposal, yard signs were part of the initial marketing push and were estimated to cost $7,000, based on 500 signs.
“It is my hope that signs will be distribute (sic) by supporting local organizations and/or the Rock Springs and Green River Chambers of Commerce,” Hughes’ proposal reads.
The Green River Chamber of Commerce is a nonprofit business association that receives funding from fundraisers, membership dues, the Green River City Council and the Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism as the chamber operates the Green River Visitors Center. The chamber was earmarked to receive $90,000 in the 2021-2022 city budget and would likely have benefited from the economic development piece of the tax as well.
While a proposed distribution of the economic development portion of the tax was not finalized, Clevenger told county lawmakers the Green River and Rock Springs chambers should receive revenue from the tax. In an email dated July 16, Clevenger shared his views with how the tax should be distributed, saying the estimated $4 million a year that would be taken for economic development shouldn’t solely go to the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition.
“Everyone from SEDC to Chambers, URA/Main Streets, to the Middle Baxter Road Industrial project would be included,” Clevenger wrote.
Clevenger said money would first be broken out to cover specific uses, such as the Middle Baxter project, which would extend basic infrastructure into the area and the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport.
The cost of that infrastructure project is estimated at more than $28 million. Clevenger‘s email did not specify how the money would be spent on the chambers of commerce. The Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce at one time housed SEDC and both chambers aid in the county’s econmic development efforts.
Rick Lee, CEO of the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce, said their chamber board opted to remain neutral in the election, saying the board wanted voters to educate themselves and vote according to their opinions.
“Our position is we just want people to vote,” Lee said.