Independence Day fell on a Wednesday this year, right in the middle of the week, so it’s fair to say that not every Los Angeles County resident was at the top of his or her game the day before, and didn’t necessarily scan the agenda of the Board of Supervisors and notice the plan for a special election, early next year, so property owners could decide whether to adopt a new parcel tax to pay for storm water cleanup.
But it’s coming. Mail-only balloting begins in March, at about the same time as the Los Angeles mayoral and City Council elections (and city attorney and controller and half of the Los Angeles Unified school board and half the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees; and maybe a city sales tax; and maybe up to three more city taxes), and runs until May 7, two weeks before the city has its next election -- the runoffs. The same city ballot (May 21) may well include a vote to change city pension benefits.
The Board of Supervisors voted to move ahead with the election, but not every member was pleased about, as Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said at the pre-4th-of-July hearing, “doing it in an off-year election when there are less people voting, and having a mailman instead of having the opportunity [of] going to the polling booth and voting.” (See the transcript here).
When Mark Pestrella of the county’s Department of Public Works acknowledged that yes, his department was recommending a mail ballot, Antonovich called it “more of a sneak attack.”
Supervisor Don Knabe echoed the remark and complained that the tax would be “hidden in a March mail-in ballot.”
“This clearly is an end-run around Prop. 218 by not putting it on the ballot,” he said.
Even Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who favored going ahead with the tax, said that “we’re attempting to do a mail-in ballot in an off year when people are asleep instead of putting it on the general election when people are aware of ballot initiatives.”
But in the end, the board voted 3 to 2 to move ahead with the mail-only ballot for the Clean Water, Clean Beaches Water Quality Funding Initiative. (See the minutes here).
Even government property owners and others that don’t generally get billed for property taxes would be billed for the parcel taxes under this measure, and that could be a major issue for owners such as the Los Angeles Unified School District. Even county departments, such as Parks and Recreation, would be billed.
Under Proposition 218 -- the “Right to Vote on Taxes Act,” a post-Proposition 13 measure adopted by voters in 1996 -- the county must first schedule a “protest hearing” to determine whether a majority of parcel owners (and there are about 2 million) oppose the vote moving forward. That hearing has been tentatively set for Nov. 27, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving weekend.
The supervisors also awarded a $1.49-million contract to K&H Printers-Lithographers Inc., of Everett, Wash., to print and mail protest hearing notices to the approximately 2 million parcels affected, followed by ballots.
The mail-only ballot complies with Proposition 218. Knabe’s comment that it doesn’t was more of an assertion that it’s outside the spirit of full disclosure to taxpayers.
Antonovich, Knabe and Yaroslavsky were correct that this vote is to take place in an “off year” -- if you consider the “on” years to be those when we elect presidents or governors. Or members of the Board of Supervisors, for that matter. Even though Tuesday seems like the big event, though, a mayoral election year, with the incumbent termed out and so many other city and school seats on the ballot, will be nothing to sneeze at. This proposed parcel may be conducted by mail, but I’m pretty sure that any stealth tactic will fail. Unlike Tuesday’s parcel taxes in two Santa Monica Mountains districts, The Times' editorial board will be grappling with this broader parcel tax and will seek reader thoughts and comments.
We have a lot still to find out. Who gets the money, and for what projects? Isn’t the county under the gun from state and federal regulators for allowing too much untreated storm water to pollute the ocean, rivers and beaches, and would this get it out of trouble? Isn’t this cleanup something we need to do anyway, and wouldn’t it be better than being ordered by a court to pay? Or is it superfluous? Is it unfair? Will property owners in the city of Los Angeles, who already are paying under Measure O, be double-charged for storm water cleanup?
Voters, taxpayers, property owners and anyone else who cares about their environment, their pocketbooks and their government should pay attention to this one. Of course, vote first; it’s election day. And take a couple of days off. But then voting season starts all over again.