July 11, 2007 - Supervisors declare flood fee election official
Copyright 2007 Marin Independent Journal, a MediaNews Group publication
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Marin Independent Journal ( California)
July 11, 2007 Wednesday
SECTION: NEWS; Marin
LENGTH: 860 words
HEADLINE: Supervisors declare flood fee election official
BYLINE: Rob Rogers
Marin supervisors Tuesday declared the results of the controversial Ross Valley flood control election official, despite protests of those who contended disqualifying 21 percent of the votes cast made the process invalid.
"A high number of ballots, it's true, were not counted," said Supervisor Hal Brown, an ardent supporter of the flood control measure. "There was also an extremely high return of ballots, which says a lot. Eighty percent of those returns were by people who played by the rules, who voted and signed their ballots. I'm not of a mind-set to invalidate that 80 percent."
The vote to enact a fee that will cost the average property owner $125 a year passed by 65 votes.
The board's decision was criticized by those who believe many voters were disenfranchised by the 45-day mail-in election, in which Ross Valley property owners voted whether to accept 20 years of user fees to pay for flood control measures in the area.
"When I was fighting the Japanese in World War II, they had a vote for Roosevelt running in his fourth term, and that was a mishmash, but it's nothing compared with this one," said Fairfax resident Stan Schriebman, addressing Brown. "After 25 years, this is the best you could come up with? I know residents who rent who told me their landlords are going to raise their rents because of this, but they didn't get to vote. I know husbands who wanted to vote 'yes' living in households with wives who wanted to vote 'no.' É You won by 65 votes of approval, but I'm concerned about the 1,700 votes that weren't counted," Schriebman said.
He added: "I'll salute Hal Brown if those votes were for the flood plan. But if the majority did not, Mr. Brown, you do not represent me as a constituent."
Election officials declared about 1,700 of the 15,010 votes cast in the election to be invalid. About 1,100 of those votes were invalid because the property owner did not sign the back of the ballot.
"I voted," said Nancy Oswald of San Anselmo. "And I'd like to think I signed the back of the ballot, but I'm not sure. I'd like to believe that everyone who returned their ballot had their vote counted. How can you have an election when 25 percent of the ballots were tossed aside?"
County Counsel Patrick Faulkner said supervisors could not legally count those ballots that had been invalidated by the lack of a signature. The names of voters were printed on the ballot but also required a signature.
But Oswald and many others demanded that the discarded votes be counted.
"I'm an immigrant," Oswald said. "I came here, and I'm proud to be an American. I have two sons serving in Iraq. They're fighting, doing what they need to do, because they believe in doing what's right.
"This is not right," Oswald said.
By law, the county was required to send ballots to every property owner in the Ross Valley who would be affected by the tax. But several residents, including former San Anselmo Police Chief Bernard Del Santo, said they never received a ballot. "I received no ballot and no information," Del Santo said. "This election needs to be invalidated and done right."
At least two individuals, Louise Mathews of San Anselmo and Roy Wolford of Corte Madera, said they plan to challenge the election in court, while a representative of the Marin United Taxpayers Association said he would ask the secretary of state to declare the vote invalid.
A tax measure would have required a two-thirds majority to pass under Proposition 13, but because officials called the flood plan a fee, a simple majority vote was all that was needed.
"In this case, it's clear that the ends justify the means," said Supervisor Judy Arnold. "I moved to San Anselmo when I moved to Marin County. It was flooding then, and it's flooding now."
Town officials in Fairfax, Larkspur and San Anselmo agreed, arguing that the Dec. 31, 2005, floods made the best argument for a regionwide flood control program.
"This is an opportunity for us to be able to move forward and leave a legacy for future generations, to solve the flooding problems in the Ross Valley watershed," said Mayor Barbara Thornton of San Anselmo.
But opponents of the tax, especially those living in areas above the flood plain, asked why they should be required to pay to protect those whose homes lie in the path of floodwaters.
"When it rains, gravity takes water downhill," said Fairfax resident Marjorie Paratus. "I'll have to pay $3,000 over 20 years to fix the problem, and yet I wouldn't expect anyone else to fix my home if water was coming in my crawl space. Why, out of left field, should I help people who own property in the flat land?"
San Anselmo City Councilman Peter Breen said Ross Valley residents could not afford to take a "me first" attitude.
"If we get hit with a firestorm now, everyone in this community who lives on a hill is going to be asking for help," Breen said. "We're all in this together."
The board agreed to certify the election by a vote of 4-0, with Supervisor Steve Kinsey absent.
The flood control user fee will go into effect 30 days after the board holds a merit hearing. That hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. July 17.