Russ Melton, white-haired man with glasses, sitting in the Sunnyvale City Hall council chambers
Sunnyvale Councilmember Russ Melton, who is also running for mayor, has been using the same Facebook page for his campaign and his official duties. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Elections watchdogs and Santa Clara County residents are keeping a keen eye out for ethics issues as campaign season ramps up, with one member of the Sunnyvale City Council already drawing their attention to his Facebook page.

Councilmember Russ Melton has made multiple posts about his mayoral candidacy on his government-affiliated Facebook page, which identifies him as a politician. His “about” section also mentions the page will be about his work on the city council alongside posts about his platforms for mayor. Melton is the only candidate so far to challenge incumbent Mayor Larry Klein.

It’s typically best practice for candidates to separate official duties from campaigning, according to Sean McMorris, transparency, ethics and accountability program manager for California Common Cause. The group advocates for government transparency and electoral reform, including the role that the internet plays in elections.

When made aware of these concerns, Melton told San José Spotlight he “will be looking into any required modifications to messages going out on my social media channels.”

Campaigning on one’s official government page invites political discourse into the space, McMorris said, and the ethics get murky if candidates use public funding or resources to campaign.

“Sometimes, the lines are blurry and it’s very easy for a politician to put something on their official site which they assume is okay, but in reality they may have to have a disclosure on it because it’s campaign material,” McMorris told San José Spotlight. “That’s why it’s best practice to keep them separated.”

McMorris said even if public resources aren’t being used, having campaign posts on an official account can make it appear as if public resources are being used to campaign and confuse voters. Keeping campaign and official accounts separated makes that distinction clear.

While it may be a best practice, however, there’s nothing illegal about it. Jay Wierenga, spokesperson for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, said the Political Reform Act mainly deals with paid political advertisements, which requires payments to be disclosed. If the advertisements were being paid for using public money and cost more than $2,000, then it would need to be disclosed in accordance with the act.

“If it isn’t using city funds, or it’s not spending to that threshold in doing so, then it’s not covered under the act,” Wierenga told San José Spotlight.

Online campaigning is constantly evolving, McMorris said, so state law is working to keep up with technological advances.

Councilmember Richard Mehlinger criticized Melton’s Facebook page and said the line between campaigning and official government business can easily be crossed if they’re on the same page. He also referenced a post Melton made about a robbery at a local jewelry store, which he said was dishonest and stoked fear about crime in the city.

Facebook post from "Russ Melton, Sunnyvale City Councilmember" regarding the robbery at Nitin Jewelers. The post reads: An outrageous heist in Sunnyvale yesterday with the jewelry store manager held at gunpoint while a dozen other suspects smashed and grabbed every display case in the store. On February 15, the current Sunnyvale Mayor voted to kill my budget proposal for a new five-officer burglary suppression unit (BSU). The BSU proposal was supported by the City Manager and the DPS Chief. We need a new Mayor and voters get to decide this November. My top priority for Sunnyvale is a safe and secure city. Councilmember Russ Melton is the only politician in town with the brass spine to stand up for the resources that our police need to keep Sunnyvale safe. I’m proud to be endorsed by Sheriff Bob Jonsen and the Sunnyvale Public Safety Officers Association. If you agree, click here to support! Link to Melton's campaign website. Link to NBC article on the robbery.
This post on the Facebook page “Russ Melton, Sunnyvale City Councilmember” shows Melton talking about his proposed burglary suppression unit and advocating for viewers to donate to his mayoral campaign.

In the same post was a link to Melton’s campaign website and a call to donate, which Mehlinger said was in poor taste.

“Sunnyvale voters are a pretty savvy bunch,” Mehlinger told San José Spotlight. “I don’t think that these sorts of tactics are likely to be very effective, but it’s not about whether they’re effective or not. It’s about whether they’re right.”

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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