By Neil Farrell
In a decision that’s sure to haunt them, the Morro Bay City Council rejected nearly 1,000 citizen’s ballots and declared a Proposition 218 protest vote defeated; then adopted new water and sewer rates to pay for its $126 million sewer project.
The Sept. 11 public hearing was to be the final chance for citizens to vote “No” on proposed new rates that would hike a monthly bill for someone using five units of water (1 unit equals 748 gallons) to $191, with those using more than that and commercial users paying more. The 5-unit customer is considered “typical” for Morro Bay.
The City has characterized the rate hike as a $41 surcharge on top of the current rate structure (approved in 2015) that will top out when the fifth and final installment hits in July 2019. That top rate was to be $150 a month for a typical user.
Going into the meeting, City officials were smiling and confident because at the start of the meeting they’d received 2,154, “No” votes, more than 640 short of the 2,794 (50% plus 1) needed to defeat the rate hikes. But project opponents still had an ace up their sleeves.
That came while Cynthia Hawley an attorney who’s been working with citizen groups on defeating the new rate structure, and Linda Donnelly who’s also been actively fighting the project, handed two stacks of ballots not previously counted to the city clerk. The catch? None of the ballots, according to Hawley, had dates on them, one of the specific requirements the City laid down when it started the Prop. 218 process on July 13.
Hawley told the Council that those ballots were collected by Citizens for Affordable Living or CAL, prior to the City’s start of the Prop. 218 vote, but they were still valid, she claimed, because State law (Prop. 218) does not require a date be written on the ballots. She argued that the City must include them in the “raw” count, made prior to the ballots being verified.
Hawley argued that some people would vote against rate hikes in principle, no matter how little or how high they were, and so their votes should count.
Many of those ballots likely came during or soon after the first public workshop CAL held this past March at the Inn at Morro Bay, when to a packed house, CAL members first made their case for rejecting the project.
A sample ballot was handed out at that time, also, CAL members have been going door-to-door and holding workshops for months speaking with residents about the project, and some of the late ballots might have been filled out then.
The City’s approach was to count the number of ballots/envelopes and if it topped the 2,794 needed, they would then open the envelopes and go through a verification process to weed out any duplicate ballots and also match up the signatures on file with the County Elections Office’s records.
Even that might have proven problematic because although the property owner or whomever’s name appears on the water and sewer bills were eligible to vote, one doesn’t have to be a registered voter to either own property or pay a utility bill.
With the shadow of nearly 1,000 additional votes hanging over the hearing, and the real possibility that the City’s rate hike would go down in flames, the meeting pressed on with the majority of speakers — perhaps a 2:1 ratio — decrying the rates as too expensive, the project as unrealistic in both its costs and ability to recycle the wastewater, and with charges of “gentrification” being leveled.
Supporters of the project said the City needed to keep up the pace and get the project done, as further delays would only raise costs even more.
The City Attorney, Joe Pannone, told the Council that under a Resolution passed in July that set the rules for the City’s Prop. 218 process, the Council had required a signature and a date be on every ballot, as well as the address or the assessor’s parcel number for each property, plus a statement saying the person protests the proposed rate hike. The vote wasn’t necessarily a vote on the merits of the project, but on the costs to residents and businesses.
Initially, the City’s ballot had also proposed a double signature with one certifying under penalty of perjury that the information was true and the voter informed on the issue. The Council removed that part before the information packets were mailed out.
And since the surprise ballots purportedly did not have the dates on them, Pannone said the Council could accept them or reject them.
In the case of accepting them, the City Clerk would have had to then go through a tedious process of validating each and every ballot and the results brought back to a future meeting.
Pannone said that he would assume many of those ballots were actually duplicates and also admitted that the reason they put the date clause in was because they knew CAL had been gathering ballots prior to the City’s rates being published.
A CAL member told The Bay News that some 54 of the 960 or so late ballots actually were duplicates, so even with throwing those out, the Prop. 218 protest would have succeeded by more than 250 votes, had the Council counted them.
Tempers flared often through most of the nearly 2-hours of public testimony, and nearly boiled over when the Council finished taking comments and set about to deliberate the matter.
Councilman Red Davis said plainly that he was inclined to disregard those late ballots in part because he’d been told by several residents that CAL members were claiming that bills would be raised $300 and even as high as $800.
When he said that, calls of “Lies” and “Liar,” rang out from the audience. Davis also said these early voters did not have the correct information on the City’s proposed rates.
In turn, each of the other four council members agreed and the vote was 5-0 to reject the more than 900 late ballots and adopt the new water/sewer rates.
A second motion that would have had the City Clerk validate all the ballots anyway was rejected in a split, 3-2 vote, with Councilwoman Marlys McPherson and Mayor Jamie Irons in the minority.
McPherson had a tense moment herself after one resident, Aaron Ochs, said he’d seen her and Glen Silloway, who has been a big supporter of the project and vocal opponent of the Prop. 218 vote, going door-to-door handing out information and lobbying residents to support the City’s project.
“That’s electioneering,” Ochs charged. He demanded that McPherson recuse herself from voting on the matter and, “Then she can follow her beliefs.”
City Attorney Pannone said just because McPherson was elected to the council did not mean that she has to give up her First Amendment Rights to Free Speech. He said so long as she was doing her campaigning as a private citizen and not as a City “employee,” she was OK to vote.
Donnelly, who with Hawley turned in the disputed ballots, said her own protest ballot was amongst them. “I’m asking you to count the ballots turned in tonight,” she said.
She and several others also criticized the City claiming that people who went to City Hall for information, were either turned away or denied a printed ballot, which had been sent out in the mail along with a packet of information on the project and the proposed rates.
City Manager Scott Collins disputed that claim.
Others said they’d tried to get information off the City’s website but links posted there were apparently broken and went nowhere.
So where as it might seem that the matter is settled, it could be far from over. The City had not received an immediate challenge to the dismissing of the 960 ballots but it, along with the claims of no help from City Hall and the broken website links, would seem to be complaints to take to court.
One speaker mentioned that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association, an anti-tax organization, was interested in the matter.
Whether a court challenge could win is debatable, however, the City could have to do the Prop. 218 protest all over again, and then the late ballots would indeed be discarded, along with the other more than 2,150 votes that were cast and counted by the City.
If nothing else, CAL and the project opponents have created a wedge issue for the November Election, when only Councilman John Headding, who is running for mayor, faces potential criticism in the matter. Councilman Matt Makowetski and Mayor Irons are not running for re-election.
During the public comment, Mayoral candidate John Weiss and Council candidates Jeff Heller, Betty Winholtz, and Dawn Addis spoke. Weiss and Heller were critical, Addis was supportive of the project, and Winholtz, a former councilwoman, didn’t address the issue when she spoke.
The other two council candidates, Jesse Barron and Jan Goldman did not speak to the issue.