Miami-Dade County is urging people to fill out information for the U.S. Census by airing a public service announcement (PSA) featuring three prominent government officials: Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Chair of the County Commission Audrey Edmonson, and Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo.
Two of those officials, Gimenez and Bovo, are also running for higher office. The PSA brings up "equal time" concerns for the November election and has saved one of their opponents tens of thousands of dollars.
The "equal-time" rule is meant to ensure people holding public office don’t use it to an unfair advantage over other candidates.
Gimenez is trying to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat representing District 26, stretching from Southwest Miami-Dade to the Florida Keys. Commissioner Bovo is facing Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava in the Miami-Dade mayor race.
NBC 6 obtained the cable contract for Miami-Dade from the county showing Miami-Dade paid $23,409 for the PSA to run 7,020 times across the county and down to the Florida Keys.
The fact the PSA will air in the Florida Keys, part of the Monroe County government, raises similar concerns over emergency texts which were sent by Miami-Dade with Mayor Gimenez’s name labeled on them earlier this Spring. The Florida Keys are not in Miami-Dade County but are within the boundaries of District 26 where Gimenez is trying to unseat Mucarsel-Powell.
Director of the Miami-Dade Communication Department, Inson Kim, tells NBC 6 the PSA went to the Florida Keys because the region is packaged as the same "zone" as Homestead, a city in Miami-Dade.
When someone buys time on cable television, they purchase different zones representing areas of the county, Kim explained.
"When we do a buy with Comcast for Countywide, they give us all of the zones to be able to reach all of Miami-Dade County. This zone is included in our other Countywide campaigns," Kim wrote in an email to NBC 6.
The county purchased a similar cable contract for its hurricane preparedness campaign.
The contract shows PSAs will air over a wide array of stations - from Comedy Central to ESPN - beginning in August and ending in early September. The message could be watched by tens of thousands of people.
PSAs get cheaper rates only available to governments when buying time on television.
"We're counting on you to get counted. Complete the census," Gimenez said in the PSA.
NBC 6 has confirmed the PSA featuring Gimenez has saved Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign up to $80,000 in cable television buys in the district.
Cable companies will have to match the lower government rate. It is unclear if Levine Cava will get a similar benefit because the office she is seeking is not a federal post.
The "equal opportunity" requirements are detailed in the Communications Act of 1934.
Many times governments avoid similar issues by not featuring the candidates likeness or voice in ads.
The PSAs were part of a communications plan recommended by the County’s Census Task Force, according to Bovo’s office.
Edmonson appointed Bovo to the task force in February 2019. The Board of County Commissioners assigned Bovo to oversee the census project. He has been one of the most prominent advocates asking people to participate.
The census is important for the county because it determines federal funding for government programs.
"Miami-Dade County is relying on you to participate in the 2020 census," Bovo says in the PSA. "This will ensure proper representation in congress and a fair share of federal funds for schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and other vital services and programs."
NBC 6 has reached out to Gimenez's campaign and has not yet heard back.
Levine Cava detailed some of her concerns in a letter to Gimenez about a “lag” in census completion.
"Rather than engaging in PSAs and television ads that have limited reach in the critical run-up to the deadline, the county must deploy more resources into neighborhoods," Levine Cava wrote.
The deadline to complete the census is Sept. 30. Visit my2020census.gov for details.