Opinion - Should the City of Elk Grove Sell and/or Promote Advertising on the City's Website?

By Connie Conley | Founder, Elk Grove Community Connection | June 17, 2013 The idea of selling and/or promoting local businesse...

By Connie Conley |
Founder, Elk Grove Community Connection | June 17, 2013

The idea of selling and/or promoting local businesses on the city of Elk Grove’s website came up at the June 12, 2013, Elk Grove City Council meeting. 
While I understand that the city of Elk Grove wants to continue to promote our small businesses and gain extra non-tax revenue, allowing local businesses to be promoted or advertise on a governmental website has serious ramifications and could be very problematic.
We have already seen what has occurred when we try circumventing sound governmental processes such as the RFP process.  The Elk Grove City Council negated an RFP after getting the green light to do so from City Attorney Jonathon Hobbs, and within a matter of days a lawsuit was filed.  In one court appearance later, the city council’s actions were deemed illegal by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, costing the taxpayers $30,000 in legal fees. 

At the June 12th council meeting, we found out at public comment about city staff throwing out yet another RFP on the city’s copy machines and maintenance, and then reissued another RFP written in such a way so that only one company was now eligible -- the one company city staff recommended over the company that scored the most points in the initial RFP and therefore, should have been awarded the contract.  This action will most likely end up with the taxpayers having to pay for yet another lawsuit. 
It is imperative that the Elk Grove City Council and the City Attorney not put the taxpayers in a position whereby we are paying out additional tax dollars on lawsuits because of unfair governmental practices. [Note:  City Attorney Hobbs is on a contract; so when we incur additional legal fees such as the RFP lawsuit, we are billed added costs by his law firm]
The initial question asking about allowing businesses to advertise on the city's website on June 12th came from Vice Mayor Steve Detrick as part of the wellness project.  It appeared that this idea received consensus from council; so that means it will be coming back as a future agenda item.

However, I was a bit taken aback when City Attorney Hobbs said that it was possible to allow advertising/promotion of local businesses on an official governmental communications website, a website which is owned by the taxpayers.  It may be legal because our city's website is a doc.org and not a doc.gov as Federal regulations prohibit commercial advertising on dot.gov sites, but it is ethical?  Additionally, this may well be a separation of government issue.

Here are just a few of the concerns I have as a taxpayer:

Conflicts of interest: Advertising would make the city dependent on a narrow set of advertisers for a new stream of revenue. There would be, at the very least, a serious appearance of impropriety if a company were to spend thousands of dollars advertising on the city’s website while seeking a zoning code amendment, has a housing project before the Elk Grove Planning Commission, has bid on a city contract, or has requested tax incentives, etc.
Lack of public control: Such advertising/promotion would give city officials the ability to raise - and spend - money without public control.

Unfair competition: This idea would put the city in direct competition with private businesses, including our media outlets such as the the
Elk Grove Citizen, The Sacramento Bee, Elk Grove Patch, Elk Grove News, Elk Grove Laguna Forum and Elk Grove Online that depend heavily on advertising revenue.
Such businesses would be paying advertising monies to the city and may opt not to advertise with private businesses that rely heavily on advertising dollars to stay in business.
However, it is very common for local government websites, including ours, to list our local non-profits with links to their websites, but with no actual advertising.  But if the council allows local businesses to do the same, do they have to allow all?  In the case of promoting “wellness,” that could mean a lot of things including massage parlors, could it not?

It is, of course, in the public’s best interest for a local government to support the revenues of its local businesses, as long as it makes no discrimination among them.  To discriminate is opening us taxpayers up to yet another lawsuit; even a class action lawsuit.

Another issue is how to control the advertising/promotion?  Since the city cannot discriminate, and this is reaching a bit as an extreme to make a point:  But do we really want to give all the nail salons in Elk Grove the ability to advertise or be promoted on the city's website?  The E*Trade baby maybe, but certainly not nail salons or smoke shops!

And the Democrat I am, looking over at the other side of the aisle, the Grand Old Party is all about getting government out of business, not putting business into government.  In this case, as much as it pains me, I think the GOP is right when applied to this scenario.  What about an advertiser who is also stauncher supporter a council member's campaign?

Either way, the idea of business either being promoted or allowed to buy advertising on the city’s website must be part of a very large discussion and a very careful one because of those unforeseen "unintended consequences.”

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Tom said...

Craig's List does it without ads. Why can't the City?

Michael said...

There's a lot of funny business done by the city council in its consent calendars.
Too much rubber stamping and precious little time discussing serious issues of fiscal responsibility, fairness, and transparency.
Davis is downright giddy when he announces the opening and closing of public testimony in the very same breath.
I'm downright disgusted.

Bob L said...

Michael is absolutely right. Davis is giddy when the public doesn't doesn't address the consent items or council matters. This council and staff have done their best to make the public feel unwanted at the podium.

They should embrace the public and their thoughts and concerns, especially when the public feels a strong enough urge to actually attend and speak publicly about their views.

SteveB6509 said...

I can see the scenario now...the City will OK this and then say that any business legally operating in the city can advertise. Then we'll have all the liquor stores and one certain smoke shop wanting to advertise so the world will know us and the drug and liquor capital of the world. Such a short-sited decision.

Excellent commentary Connie.

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