A judge has denied a request by proponents of the controversial Taxpayers’ Right To Know and Vote Initiative to change ballot language for the June 3 election in Signal Hill.
Maria Harris, a Signal Hill resident and proponent of the initiative, filed a lawsuit, known as a writ of mandate, against the City last week, claiming that the measure’s ballot label is “inaccurate, misleading, incomplete and results in bias against the citizens’ initiative,” according to court documents. Carol Churchill, an attorney and former Signal Hill councilmember who drafted the initiative, is acting as legal counsel in the case.
The plaintiffs requested that the ballot label, which was prepared by City Clerk Kathee Pacheco and will appear as a small description of the initiative on the official ballot next to where voters decide yes or no, be amended.
After a court hearing on Wednesday, March 19 in which Churchill presented further arguments and documents, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien rejected the request, ruling that the proponents have “not shown by clear and convincing evidence that the label must be amended.” The hearing was given special priority considering the timeline for the election.
“To the court, it is not clear the subject ballot label is impermissibly partial, false, misleading or incomplete,” the judge stated, according to court documents.
Harris said in a phone interview with the Signal Tribune that the proponents are planning the appeal the judge’s decision.
She said the judge’s ruling means that the ballot language isn’t “bad enough to stop the wheels of the election going forward,” but Harris added that he “left the door wide open for us to take the next step, which is what we’re doing.”
Churchill said she respects the judge’s decision regarding the ballot label but confirmed she is planning to take the case to the appellate court.
“I respect the court,” she said. “He is a very bright judge. I felt he did a good job in evaluating [the case]… He has a limited amount of time to consider it. We will take this up to the higher court level when they have sufficient time to review it. I will take whatever steps are necessary to protect the voters and the community so they have full, accurate and complete voter information.”
In addition, Harris said the court has set March 27 as the date for another expedited hearing in regard to the proponents’ other case, a writ of mandate, challenging the City’s impartial analysis. That hearing will be held in Dept. 86 of the Los Angeles Superior Court, she said. Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Dean Logan was named as a real party of interest in both cases and has been in communication with the proponents, Harris said.
Churchill and Harris are both members of Signal Hill Community First, an association of community residents who started a petition nearly two years ago and gathered more than 870 signatures from registered voters to get the measure on the ballot, according to city officials.
While the proponents state that the intention of the initiative is to give Signal Hill taxpayers more oversight over the City’s fiscal decisions, primarily with regard to raising taxes to give developers economic incentives for future development, city officials have stated that the initiative language is too broad and would apply to all taxes, assessments and fees.
According to the ballot label, the initiative if passed would amend the City Charter, requiring a two-thirds vote of the electorate for “all taxes, assessments and fees.” The initiative would also require that taxes and fees expire every 10 years, requiring another two-thirds vote. In addition, assessments and bond repayments would expire every 20 years.
The initiative’s proponents, however, claim that the ballot label should be amended to include that only “new local sales, user and property taxes,” and some “non-exempt” fees, property assessments and new bond debt would require atwo-thirds voter approval under the initiative, excluding voter approval for local business, license, franchise, hazardous waste facility and transient occupancy taxes. The proponents state the state and federal taxes and fees wouldn’t apply to the initiative.
Brandon Ward, Signal Hill’s deputy city attorney, argues however that the ballot label is required under state law to be a “condensed version” of the ballot title and summary that is presented during the start of the petition.
“Under state law, the ballot label is supposed to be a condensed version of the ballot title and the ballot summary, both of which were created almost two years ago,” Ward said in a phone interview. “State law requires that is how it’s supposed to be done.”
City Attorney David Aleshire has stated that language for the proposed initiative is too broad, open to interpretation and will likely result in litigation to resolve the matter.
City Manager Ken Farfsing said the proponents had a chance to change the ballot title’s language when starting the petition rather than waiting weeks after the City Council approved a resolution for the ballot measure to be sent to the County.
“There was a period of time where the petitioners could have challenged it,” he said. “They basically indicated that they felt the ballot title we’re using is misleading, verging on voter fraud, but it’s what the petitioners gave us. It was in the petition, and we just believed the city clerk just followed the law… I don’t believe we violated any laws.”
On Feb. 18, the Signal Hill City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Taxpayers’ Right to Know and Vote Initiative. Some Signal Hill residents expressed during public comment that they oppose the initiative as well.
Farfsing stated during the Council meeting that the initiative would make voters responsible for making “complicated, technical and interrelated fiscal decisions” and would “reduce the ability of the elected City Council and city staff to manage the City’s budget and fiscal affairs.”
City officials argue that the initiative goes far beyond its intended purpose, requiring costly elections at $75,000 per election for fees that are regularly voted on by the Council through resolutions.
In addition, an independent consultant found that the initiative has the potential to impact $2.1 million, or 13 percent, of the City’s General Fund, and force the City to pay nearly $400,000 in additional staffing costs annually.
Churchill, however, has denied the City’s estimates and claims, stating that the City is running a “fear campaign” in an attempt to “mislead the public.”
Farfsing said in a phone interview that the City has already spent nearly $30,000 on legal fees to prepare the initiative for the upcoming special election, not counting the recent litigation.