Two former top-ranking Signal Hill police officials have expressed opposition to a controversial ballot measure that they said would reduce public-safety funding and services. The initiative became the center of discussion for three agenda items and much of the public-comment period during the City Council meeting on Tuesday, April 1.
The Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote initiative, also known as Measure U, will appear on the ballot for the June 3 election and would change the City Charter to require that new and increased taxes, fees and assessments be subject to a two-thirds voter approval of the electorate. A group of residents called Signal Hill Community First led a petition to get the measure on the ballot as a way to give taxpayers more control over the City’s fiscal decisions.
In a presentation to the Council, former Signal Hill Police Chief Don Pedersen read a statement from the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association, opposing the initiative. The association, which represents 46 police chiefs in the county, issued a press release on March 26, calling the initiative “unnecessary” and stating that it would have a “significant financial impact” on the City and the Signal Hill Police Department.
The initiative’s proponents, however, refuted the association’s claims, stating that the concerns are part of a “scare campaign” directed by the City to “mislead” voters.
The association’s opposition is based on a fiscal analysis conducted last year by an independent consultant for the City. The analysis by Urban Futures, Inc. determined that, “over time,” the initiative, if passed, would “result in a loss of revenue of over $450,000 annually” to the police department, according to the association. The association also claims the unprecedented initiative would restrain the police department from entering into agreements with local law-enforcement agencies.
“The resulting loss of revenue would most certainly result in a reduction of public-safety services and cause the police department to move from a proactive to a reactive agency,” said Pedersen, who worked as police chief for the City from 2001 to 2006.
During the public-comment period, former Police Capt. Ron Mark, who retired last year after seven years with the City, also expressed opposition, stating that the measure would cause “huge problems for the police department” by reducing money and services.
“I think it’s ill-conceived,” Mark said. “It’s unfortunate that, and this is my personal opinion, this is a personal attack against our Council and against the people who work for the City. Staff has done an excellent job, and I encourage the citizens to vote ‘no’ on this initiative.”
In response, during a public-comment portion of the meeting, Maria Harris, a proponent of the initiative, however, said the fiscal analysis cited by the association is “false,” “misleading” and “biased.” In addition, Carol Churchill, a former city councilmember who drafted the initiative, contested Mark’s claims, stating that the police department would not lose any money if the measure were to pass.
“I would not worry about the police department losing funds,” Churchill said during the meeting. “The reason is simple. It would be political suicide for a politician to cut the funding to the police department… Funding the police department is the top priority of every city council in the history of this City, and that is not going to change, whether you’re on the City Council or somebody else gets elected. This is simply a scare campaign because it’s illegal to tell the people how to vote, so you scare them into doing what you want them to do, but the public needs to remember that it’s your wallet that the City wants to take your money out of.”
Much of the controversy is centered around the fact that the City and the initiative’s supporters both have different views on what the measure would actually do and what charges would apply if the measure were to pass.
According to the City, the initiative would change the City Charter to require that “all new and increased taxes, fees and assessments be approved by a two-thirds vote of the electorate” in citywide elections. 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, according to the City.
Supporters of the initiative, however, claim the measure would only apply to “new” and “local” sales, user and property taxes– three out of nine tax categories– while certain other fees, property assessments and bond debts would be exempt by state laws, including propositions 218 and 26.
In preparing the fiscal analysis, the independent consultant took the same assumption as the City– that the initiative would apply to all taxes, fees and assessments as stated on the petition that was signed by more than 870 voters. The consultant concluded last November that the ballot measure would impact 2.1 million or 13 percent of revenues in the City’s General Fund, in addition to causing other fiscal challenges.
In February, the Council voted unanimously to oppose the measure. City officials stated that there is no precedent in existence for such an initiative that would require voters to be responsible for making “complicated, technical and interrelated fiscal decisions” that are normally conducted through public hearings, resolutions and internally by city staff. City officials note that the initiative would require elections that cost the City about $75,000 each.
Churchill and Harris, however, state that the consultant’s interpretation of the initiative is wrong because it doesn’t take into account state laws that they claim would exempt certain taxes, fees and assessments from the voter-approval requirement and, therefore, the fiscal analysis is false as well.
“Urban Future’s report is based on speculation. It’s not based on fact,” Churchill said during the Council meeting this week. “The initiative is very clear… You’ll see the only thing it adds to the Charter is the disclosure on the ballot when the City Council chooses to raise revenue by imposing new taxes and new fees. It’s simple, and that’s why the voters should vote for it, because it will put the power back in their pocket.”
Addressing the City Council, City Attorney David Aleshire, however, said Churchill’s remarks are “untrue.”
“She just said the measure only relates to disclosure,” he said. “That is not true. There are provisions that talk about fees, taxes and assessments and when they have to go on the ballot and what sort of vote they have to get to be approved.”
In recent weeks, the initiative’s proponents have brought two lawsuits against the City in an effort to change ballot language prepared by the City before the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters’ printing deadline.
On March 19, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien denied a request by the initiative’s proponents to change the ballot label that they claim is “inaccurate, misleading, incomplete and results in bias against the citizens’ initiative.” Subsequently, a three-judge panel of the Second Appellate Court rejected an appeal to that ruling.
About a week later, in a second lawsuit against the City, the initiative’s proponents fought to amend an impartial analysis that was prepared by the city attorney’s office.
On March 27, Judge O’Brien directed both parties to come up with a compromise. As a result, both the City and the initiative’s proponents agreed to change parts of the impartial analysis, particularly replacing the word “any” with “some” in various parts of the impartial analysis.
Aleshire, who clarified during the Council meeting that the judge did not in fact make a ruling on the matter, has stated that there is no legal precedent in the nation for such an initiative and it would take several years of litigation to resolve differences over interpretation of the measure’s language in relation to state laws. The City estimates its legal expenses so far at over $48,000, according to a statement issued by the City.
In a separate statement, however, the initiative’s proponents say the result of the court hearing shows that the impartial analysis that will appear in the sample-ballot booklet is “inaccurate, misleading and prejudicial.”
“Getting the City to produce accurate and fair information on the Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote initiative has been a challenge, but we were persistent,” said Churchill in the statement. “Getting them to produce these documents in a timely manner to allow for adequate legal remedies, and at the same time, meet the Registrar’s print deadlines, has been difficult. But, at each step we were confident that the court would agree with us, and the court did.”
Meanwhile, the Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote initiative was brought up during two other agenda items during the Council meeting.
The Council agreed to postpone a second reading of a new elections and campaign finance ordinance after proponents of Measure U recently filed a lawsuit against the City over the ordinance, which was first introduced and approved by the Council on March 4.
The ordinance would require that any person, organization, nonprofit or political action committee (PAC) that would make an independent expenditure of $100 or more in support of or in opposition to any measure or candidate during Signal Hill municipal elections report campaign contributions to the city clerk within 24 hours of making the expenditure, among other conditions.
The Council requested the ordinance after mailers by an organization called the Coalition for Clean Affordable Water targeted incumbent councilmembers and city officials during last year’s election. The Signal Tribune first reported that attorneys and consultants for the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, which has been in a longtime legal dispute against the City over water rates, financed the campaign.
City officials said that Signal Hill’s new requirements would provide more “transparency” and better inform voters during election cycles by mandating that such groups reveal their financial backers before an election.
City Attorney Aleshire noted that the amendment to the city’s campaign-finance law is needed because such influences can have a big impact on elections in Signal Hill, which has a small population and low voter turnout. He said that there are about 1,600 registered voters in Signal Hill but only 17 percent voted in recent elections.
“It doesn’t take very many votes to get something passed,” Aleshire said.
Churchill, however, recently filed a lawsuit against the City over the ordinance, requesting an injunction on the grounds that the proposed ordinance shouldn’t require that “gratuitous” rendition of services of $500 or more be reported to the City and that residents shouldn’t be allowed to file lawsuits for violations of the law. The court, however, denied Churchill’s lawsuit.
Aleshire clarified that the ordinance had nothing to do with the Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote initiative. Churchill, however, said such provisions would “infringe on the First Amendment rights to people engaging in the political process.”
Councilmember Tina Hansen requested that only the city attorney be allowed to bring lawsuits for violations. In addition, the Council directed staff to look into whether requiring reporting of “gratuitous” contributions is needed to be consistent with state campaign finance law. The Council is expected to reintroduce a newly drafted ordinance at its next meeting.
California Crown assessment
The Council agreed (4-0) that it would conduct a public hearing on increasing the annual assessment for the landscaping and lighting maintenance district of the California Crown housing tract on May 20. The assessment is being adjusted for a 1.08-percent increase in the consumer price index.
Mayor Ed Wilson recused himself and abstained from voting on the agenda item since he lives in California Crown.
Normally, the Council approves any increase in the annual assessment, which pays for lighting and maintenance along a 90-home housing tract at Temple Avenue and 20th Street, along with the City’s budget, which is adopted in June.
However, city staff requested that the assessment process be expedited given the implications that the Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote initiative may have on the district and the assessment process.
City Manager Ken Farfsing said that, if Measure U were to pass, a two-thirds majority vote of the electorate would be required to increase the annual assessment levied on the district, costing the district $75,000 to pay for a citywide election. Current costs to pay for the annual public hearing are only $350, he said.
“Our major staff concern is to avoid any uncertainty and additional election costs should Measure U pass and be placed on the residents of California Crown,” said Farfsing, who added that paying for an election would “more than double” the annual assessments for the district, which has an existing maintenance budget of $56,000.
Farfsing also said the passage of Measure U may also result in a potential drop in property values if the assessment increase isn’t approved by voters.
“If the two-thirds vote is not obtained, the district may not be able to properly maintain the landscaping, fences, paving and other items,” he said. “As a result, a slow but steady deterioration of the infrastructure could take place, which would lead to a drop in property values and property tax revenues.”
Harris, however, contends that Measure U would not apply to the California Crown property-assessment district since Proposition 26 exempts such districts from the state’s Proposition 218 voter-approval requirements. She said the district is also exempt because a developer established it in 1992.
“All these factors exempt California Crown from any citywide voter-approval requirement now or in the future,” Harris said. “It is really very unfortunate that the City continues to try to misinform and mislead Signal Hill residents and exploit the California Crown residents.”
Aleshire, however, disagreed with her statements, adding that charter cities have a right to enforce laws that go beyond state statutes.
“It would be great if the language says it doesn’t apply to California Crown, but that’s not how it’s written,” he said. “We are not in a position to add extra language to fix the drafting problems that exist with the measure.”
Other Council highlights:
Block-grant funding The Council approved the City’s 2014-2015 application for housing and community development funds and authorized city staff to submit the application to the Los Angeles County Community Development Commission. The City is expected to receive approximately $58,889 in new Community Development Block Grant (CDGB) funds under the Los Angeles County allocation from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). City staff is proposing to use the funds for continuation of the City’s senior food-distribution program in addition to street and sidewalk improvements in eligible areas of the city, according to a staff report.
Police station demolition The Council voted unanimously to award a contract in the amount of $486,224 to 5M Contracting, Inc. for the demolition of the former Signal Hill police station, located at 1800 E. Hill St. The project is being paid for through former redevelopment funds that the City acquired in the construction of the new police station.
Community garden project The Council voted unanimously to award a contract in the amount of $165,615 to Asphalt, Fabric and Engineering, Inc. for the construction of the Signal Hill Community Garden to be located at 1917 E. 21st St. The Council also accepted M.C. Alyea Construction’s request to withdraw its bid.
The next Signal Hill Council meeting is scheduled for 7pm on April 15 at the Council Chamber. To view streaming videos of the City Council’s meetings, visit cityofsignalhill.org .