Debate about a controversial ballot measure, known as Measure U, continued this week as Signal Hill city officials raised concerns that the initiative would impact the City’s ability to charge fees for new after-school and summertime youth recreation programs.
The City Council voted unanimously (3-0) at its April 15 meeting to advance a fee resolution to recover costs for new and existing recreation programs that would be offered by the City’s community-services department to youth ages 3 to 14. Mayor Ed Wilson and Councilmember Tina Hansen were both absent for the agenda item.
Fees would range from $2 per day to $12 per day per participant, generating an estimated $92,000 annually to partially offset operational costs for the current After-school Recreation Club (ARC) and Itty Bitty Day Camp in addition to newly proposed “tween” summer day-camp programs, according to a staff report.
The Council typically considers fee resolutions when adopting the City’s budget in mid-June, but staff recommended the Council consider the fees prior to the June 3 election because of “uncertainty” created by Measure U, the staff report states.
According to city officials, if voters pass the measure, also known as the Taxpayer’s Right to Know and Vote initiative, the City would have to get a citywide voter approval to establish the fee programs. Certified ballot language states that Measure U would amend the City Charter, requiring that “all taxes, assessments and fees” be subject to a two-thirds voter approval of the Signal Hill electorate.
Proponents of the measure, however, claim that state laws, including propositions 218 and 26, would exempt certain fees, taxes and assessments from the voter-approval requirement under the California Constitution.
Carol Churchill, a former councilmember who drafted the measure, praised the youth programs but dismissed the City’s concerns, adding that city officials are using Council meetings to “mislead voters.”
“I realize that we’re in election season, so there’s going to be a lot of silly stuff going on, and the Council meetings are going to be used by staff for broadcasting their particular position,” she said.
Councilmember Lori Woods, who has said she is now against the measure after previously signing a petition in favor of it, rebutted Churchill’s assertion.
“What is spoken of as ‘silly stuff during the election season’ is what I see…as being very prudent and erring on the side of caution for the active programs that the community has come to rely on,” Woods said. “So, please, I’d like it to be known that staff is working in direct supervision of the Council in being prudent and in being cautious…”
Churchill and Maria Harris, who also spoke during public comment in support of the measure, are the leading members of a group of residents called Signal Hill Community First, which gathered enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. The citizens’ initiative was lobbied nearly two years ago as a way to give taxpayers more oversight on city finances, specifically incentive proposals for developers.
Since the petition drive began, however, the measure’s proponents have been at odds with the City over the initiative’s intent and interpretation.
Most recently, Harris and Churchill filed two lawsuits against the City in Los Angeles County Superior Court in an attempt to have ballot language changed. A judge denied their request to amend the ballot label, however, in a second lawsuit, the City and the measure’s proponents both agreed to change terminology in the initiative’s impartial analysis, specifically substituting the word “some” for the words “all” and “any” with regard to taxes, according to court transcripts.
City Attorney David Aleshire, however, maintains that it’s still “unclear” whether state laws would trump city laws since there is no legal precedence for such a measure. He adds that charter cities have the ability to pass laws with more restrictions than the State.
“It appears to us that this charter-amendment measure was written perhaps more broadly than it was intended and it creates a question concerning how this would be interpreted,” Aleshire told the Council this week, adding that other residents besides the measure’s proponents could challenge the City in a lawsuit.
According to city staff, if Measure U were to pass, the Council would have until June 15 to propose an election for November in order to increase any fees, taxes or assessments. Staff estimates the City has already spent more than $40,000 on the upcoming election and new elections would cost about $75,000 each.
Still, even if the City were to get a two-thirds voter approval for increasing youth-program fees, proposed fee hikes may be held up for years since the City would most likely be in court to iron out “inconsistencies” with state law and to determine the correct interpretation of the measure, noted City Manager Ken Farfsing.
“The city attorney has warned there are no legal precedents from the plain language of Measure U to guide us in interpretation,” Farfsing said. “So the public needs to be prepared for many years of litigation to establish judicial interpretation of Measure U. This could ultimately affect the viability of the community-services department and the programs that it offers to the community.”
Similar concerns were raised at the previous Council meeting regarding impacts Measure U may have on funding the City’s police department and raising assessments for the California Crown landscape and lighting maintenance district, among other issues.
Both the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs Association and the Los Angeles County Democratic Party have endorsed a “no” vote on Measure U.
The concerns come after the City hired an independent consultant, known as Urban Futures Inc., last year to prepare a fiscal analysis on the measure. The consultant concluded last November that the measure would impact 13 percent, or $2.1 million, of revenues in the City’s General Fund budget.
The consultant found that the City’s community-services department collected nearly $200,000 in revenues in Fiscal Year 2011-2012. The report states that the measure poses three threats: limiting current fees for programs at current levels as opposed to demand levels; restricting the department’s ability to offer new programs; and the elimination of community-services programs, including transportation for senior-citizen residents.
Aly Mancini, Signal Hill’s community services manager, said during the Council meeting this week that the City decided in 2011 to redesign its After-school Recreation Club program, which currently has approximately 72 residents and 26 nonresidents participating, dropping a fee-based, licensed model in order to “better meet the needs” of the community. However, she said the new fees would “encourage more consistent participation from parents.”
“Unfortunately, because the program is free, we have some parents who are using the program as a drop-in program and are taking spaces from families who truly need child care,” Mancini said. “This also creates a constant fluctuation in the number of kids coming, which creates staffing and programing challenges.”
She said the new fees would also help make the Itty Bitty Day Camp, a pilot program started last year for “transitional” pre-kindergarten children ages 3 to 5, more affordable, with these children being included by this fall.
Additionally, the City is proposing a new summer day camp for “tweens” in 6th through 8th grades. Mancini noted that there has been an increase in the number of students loitering in Signal Hill Park after being let out of Jessie Nelson Middle School, which opened two years ago.
Other Council highlights:
Presentations Vice Mayor Larry Forester introduced and Signal Hill Police Chief Michael Langston swore in new Signal Hill police officers Kyle Castner, Erik Medina and Michael Stone.
Campaign finance ordinance The Council voted unanimously (4-0) to approve a new campaign-finance ordinance. Mayor Wilson was absent for the agenda item. The new ordinance requires persons, organizations, nonprofits and political action committees to disclose independent expenditures of at least $100 or more during Signal Hill municipal elections to the city clerk within 24 hours of making the expenditure, among other conditions. City staff has previously proposed including “gratuitous rendition of services” in the ordinance but that was eliminated after Measure U proponent Churchill brought up legal objections. City staff also added that the city law would be consistent with state elections code. The new law was passed as an urgency ordinance, meaning it went into effect immediately after being adopted by the Council and, therefore, applies to the June 3 election.
Oil pipeline agreement The Council agreed to conduct a public hearing on granting a new pipeline franchise agreement to Oil Operators Incorporated prior to adopting the City’s two-year budget because of “uncertainty” created by Measure U, according to a staff report. The agreement stipulates the interests, rights, privileges and duties to lay and use pipes and appurtenances for transmitting and distributing oil and petroleum products along public streets, ways, alleys and other areas. The public hearing for the pipeline franchise agreement is set for May 20.
Green city report The Council received an annual update on the City’s green city report, which was first approved by the Council in 2012, requiring the Sustainable City Committee to continue to promote sustainable efforts. According to a staff report, the City has maintained the “achieved” designation in nine areas, including renewable energy, recycling, green building, urban planning, green access, tree canopy, water conservation, water source protection and waster-water reduction.
June Council meeting The Council agreed to change the first meeting date in June to Monday, June 2 since the regular scheduled meeting for that week would fall on June 3, the day of the statewide primary election in which Signal Hill voters will determine the outcome of Measure U.
The next Signal Hill Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 6 at 7pm at the Council Chamber.