Save Morro Bay has initiated legal proceedings to count and validate approximately one thousand protest letters the City recently discarded.
On Oct. 22, our attorney inspected those letters at City Hall and believe they should be counted and validated. Since Save Morro Bay co-founder Aaron Ochs announced the organization’s legal initiative at the Oct. 23 City Council meeting, the community has rallied behind us.
The media has also taken notice.
The New Times reported on Oct. 25 the latest developments, including a comment from City Manager Scott Collins. City Manager Scott Collins told New Times “the city believes it’s on solid legal ground,” adding that “even if the disputed protests are all counted, due to ‘errors or duplications’ the number wouldn’t likely surpass a majority threshold.”
The City is not on solid legal ground.
Though the City is allowed to administer the Proposition 218 process under state law, there is no provision in the law that legally allows them to discard protest letters based on their own arbitrary and capricious guidelines as long as the protest letter is submitted before the 45-day hearing period deadline.
The City’s resolution (Resolution 44-18) authorizing the 218 process does stipulate a date requirement for protests, and some of the thousand protest letters are undated. The resolution also precludes letters dated before the 45-day period commencement. However, the resolution unlawfully discriminates against ratepayers voting against any rate increase and/or in anticipation of unaffordable rate increases. The resolution also discriminates against the intent of the voter, forcing them to vote based on specific and limited parameters.
We also learned several of the discarded ballots are dated.
Mayor Jamie Irons says the protests were discarded because residents were getting “false information.” In The Tribune‘s Oct. 26 article, Irons refers to a voicemail he received from a resident claiming an unnamed activist told her the Water Reclamation Facility would cost $600-800 a month and that property values would plunge in half. After Irons allowed Mr. Ochs to listen to the voicemail, we concluded the lone example he provided was hearsay and a legally inadmissible reason to justify the discarding of a thousand protests.
We find it categorically absurd to invalidate all those protests because of one voicemail.
Irons also claimed Citizens for Affordable Living issued mailings and other collateral falsely claiming the rates would be $600-800 a month. We archived and reviewed all of CAL’s materials from this year and found no evidence the organization severely misled the community with that false claim. So we have to ask the question: If the mayor is spreading false information, should his protest be invalidated? We believe the answer is no. It’s the intent to protest that matters.
Proposition 218 is complicated. We get it. But we believe the City should not assume what ratepayers are thinking or considering when they submit a protest. They shouldn’t assume what they think ratepayers accurately know. While we concur with Irons that the 218 is designed to provide accurate and specific information about new rate charges, we vehemently disagree the City should engage in authoritarian and draconian measures to unjustly bend a ratepayer’s intent to vote.
We conclude our position statement with a recent statement from The Tribune editorial board, which we fully agree with:
“The Morro Bay City Council has struggled with a reputation for a lack of transparency, and its recent decision to not accept some Proposition 218 ballots protesting water and sewer rate increases didn’t help it. Opponents of the rate increase turned in a batch of ballots — they said there were 1,000 — on the night of the hearing. The council declined to accept them. Council members said they were invalid because they did not include dates, and speculated that many were probably duplicates of other ballots turned in earlier.
Contrast that with county elections, in which officials go to great lengths to verify the ballots, to ensure fairness. Instead, the council seemed to reject ballots out of hand. Had it accepted all ballots for verification, that would have firmly established, once and for all, whether a majority of ratepayers support the sewer/water reclamation project and is willing to fund it through a rate increase.”
Want to support our efforts to get all votes counted or validated? Email us today and find out how you can help.