Monday, April 2, 2012

Crafty Contra Costa "Clean Water Initiative" is a sham

Silicon Valley Mercury News/Daniel Borenstein, 3/31/12. "Daniel Borenstein:  Bureaucrats engineer rigged election to get taxpayers' money."

"Protecting creeks, the Delta and San Francisco Bay from polluted stormwater runoff makes good sense. But Contra Costa's "2012 Community Clean Water Initiative" campaign is a sham. It's impossible to discern from the $1 million taxpayer-funded study and propaganda effort, produced by an unaccountable group of government bureaucrats and their consultants, whether the ballot measure deserves support. You read that right: They're using your money to persuade you to pay more taxes. If they succeed, look for other Bay Area counties to follow suit. 
Government walking an ethical line on this?

Maybe the tax increase is justifiable. Maybe it's not. But this election, for which mail-in ballots must be received by Friday, turns the democratic process on its head. Voters received no neutral analysis and no pro or con ballot arguments.

The only digestible explanation, written by political reporter Lisa Vorderbrueggen, appears in the local section of today's paper.  As for the one-sided, government-produced mailers, they were technically only "educational materials" because they never explicitly urged a yes vote. It's the sort of gamesmanship political operatives pull; it's unethical coming from public employees. None of the mailers tells you this critical piece of information: You're already funding this program. This isn't a new tax, it's a tax increase.

Most Contra Costa homeowners pay an annual "Federal Stormwater" charge with their property taxes, usually $25 to $45 per parcel. This measure would add $12 to $22, depending on location, ostensibly to help pay for compliance with new regulations.  To make decisions like this, Californians have rightly come to expect fair election materials that include useful summaries of ballot measures. This, however, is no typical plebiscite. Backers instead opted to conduct an election of property owners in a process usually used for small geographic areas that need to raise money for a particular purpose.

Your right to cast a ballot doesn't depend on being a registered voter; it's whether you're a property owner. One parcel, one vote. Even state and local government agencies cast ballots. Contra Costa County and its cities, for example, have about 1,900 votes. School districts and large developers may have more.
Only majority approval is needed. Had this been a traditional property-tax balloting with registered voters, it would have required two-thirds approval.

Another twist: If voters approve the measure, most money will be funneled back to cities for individual clean water programs. So, the proposal essentially wraps 19 individual local taxes into one without conducted separate elections for each city. This way, the countywide majority can override the will of one city's voters who might oppose the measure.  This plan was promoted by the "management committee" of the Contra Costa Clean Water Program, comprised of government staff members from the cities, the county and county flood control. They requested the county board of supervisors put it up for a vote. The committee members acted without formal resolutions of support from their respective city councils. Council members who weren't consulted should be outraged. Their committee representatives are not accountable to the voters and have a vested interest in raising revenue to protect their jobs and bolster their cities' budgets.

It's probably legal, I'm told by an expert attorney. But it's unclear who vetted the Contra Costa plan. County Counsel Sharon Anderson provided legal guidance, but she's not talking, citing attorney-client privilege. Why Anderson, who is supposed to be representing the county's interest, not the Clean Water Program, would be providing advice for this measure is unclear.As some supervisors now realize, they didn't receive full information before agreeing to countywide balloting. There again, they didn't ask many questions. Ultimately, they're responsible for this charade. Credit Supervisor Mary Piepho, of Discovery Bay, with opposing it. Anderson notes that the law for these property tax elections doesn't require that voters receive the normal impartial information. But it doesn't forbid it either. Apparently these folks need a law telling them to do the right thing. That shouldn't be surprising. Holding a rigged election that keeps voters in the dark was more convenient for the bureaucrats who want your money."

Submitted by Jim Wagner

Posted by Kathy Meeh

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