Measure M Drive at Road's End : Election: Voters will decide today whether to pay a half-cent sales tax to improve county roads, after an expensive campaign. And a number of local elections will be decided.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wooed by what almost surely will be the most expensive campaign in Orange County history, voters will decide today whether to pay a half-cent more in sales tax to help finance a 20-year plan to make the county's clogged roads and freeways more tolerable.

Campaign contributions for Measure M, the transportation improvement plan, on Monday hit a near record $2.4 million, most from developers and building industry representatives. In the end, supporters say donations are expected to exceed the record set in the 1988 campaign against a countywide slow-growth ordinance.

Measure M, the transportation improvement plan, will be the only issue on the ballot for about 45% of the county's voters. But in several areas of the county, voters also will decide numerous school board races and a community college district election, determine the outcome of an incorporation effort in Laguna Niguel, consider removing gays from protection under the city of Irvine's Human Rights Ordinance, and determine the political future of a Fountain Valley councilman who was convicted for soliciting a prostitute.

With those issues and the countywide transportation measure on the ballot, Registrar of Voters Donald F. Tanney will not even venture a guess on how many of the county's 1.1 million registered voters will participate in the off-year election.

Normally, such elections yield a turnout of just 10% to 12% in Orange County. But Measure M proponents have mounted an expensive campaign that already has resulted in a record number of absentee ballots--27,000 had been received by Monday afternoon--and Tanney has said that all bets are off on the ultimate turnout.

Opponents of the measure--which would raise about $3.1 billion over 20 years to pay for wider freeways and streets, transit projects and other transportation improvements--are confident they will win if the turnout is around 20% or below. But if a quarter or more of the electorate casts ballots, Measure M proponents reckon that they will have the upper hand.

To reach that goal, Citizens for Yes on M probably will end up raising well over $2.5 million, committee treasurer Dana W. Reed said Monday.

Receipts logged by Citizens for Yes on M reached the $2.4-million mark Monday. Before Election Day in June, 1988, the group opposing Measure A, the countywide slow-growth initiative, reported raising about $2 million. But they wound up with total receipts of $2,525,000 when post-election reports were filed.

Once the election is over, Reed said Monday, his committee probably will top the figure for Measure A, thereby setting a new county record.

"When you stop and think about it, our job was more expensive than theirs," Reed said. "They were campaigning against something, not asking people to tax themselves like Measure M does. Also, we have to spend more money on getting our vote out. In 1988, there was already higher turnout expected because it was a regular election. If we get less than a 20% turnout, we're dead."

In Laguna Niguel, the focus of today's election will be Measure O, a referendum on cityhood. If a majority votes yes, the South County community of about 40,000 would become Orange County's 29th city on Dec. 1.

On Monday, Citizens for Cityhood volunteers were making telephone calls to voters, urging a big turnout. The group also will staff a telephone bank today and plans to have people standing on street corners with signs, reminding people to vote, said Denny Harris, a leader of the incorporation effort.

There is no longer any organized opposition to cityhood in Laguna Niguel. A small group called Stop Cityhood folded last week, with its leaders announcing that they no longer had doubts about Laguna Niguel's economic viability as a city and were switching to the pro-cityhood side.

Since every city needs a city council, Laguna Niguel voters also will be electing five council members from among 23 candidates Tuesday. The council members would be sworn in only if residents also give them a city to govern.

Another measure--P--on today's ballot asks Laguna Niguel voters if they want to elect future council members citywide or by districts within the city.

In Irvine, voters will decide a controversial measure that would remove protections for homosexuals from the city's Human Rights Ordinance.

About 100 volunteers urging passage of Measure N hit the telephones Monday, running down lists of thousands of registered voters in the city. Opponents, meanwhile, were busy making signs urging people to vote and passing out literature at local shopping centers.

"At this late point, we're spending very little time educating people," said the Rev. Fred Plumer, a leader of the group trying to defeat Measure N. "We're just trying to clarify for people what their vote means--that a no vote means the law stays intact. . . . It's amazing how much confusion there is out there over that."

If passed, Measure N would repeal a section of the city's 15-month-old Human Rights Ordinance that bans discrimination against gays and lesbians. Its conservative supporters say the ordinance language legitimizes immorality, while critics say it is merely a protection of equal rights for everyone.

Voters in Irvine also will elect two Irvine Unified School District board members from the following six candidates: Genovica N. Balteanu; Ken Baxter, a hotel manager; William M. Dunkelberger, a salesman; Harbans Sraon, an educator, scientist and realtor; as well as incumbents Greg Smith and Margie Wakeham.

In all, 61 candidates are vying for 25 positions in nine school and community college district board races.

Eighteen of those candidates are running to serve on the board of the Orange Unified School District, which has been rocked by a corruption scandal and labor disputes in recent years.

The final days of the race also provided some controversy, when the local teachers union, which had campaigned against incumbent Joe J. Cherry, complained that its telephone lines had been cut the weekend before the election.

Telephone service to the teachers union, along with a rental car agency, golf repair shop and bread store housed in the same building, was out until about 1 p.m. Monday, a union official said. Cherry has denied any involvement in the incident.

"The final two days of any campaign are always crucial," said Steve A. McDonald, executive director for the Orange Unified Education Assn. "Whoever is responsible knew we were running phone banks and that this was a very critical part of our office."

McDonald complained Monday that police had not initiated an investigation into the incident. But Orange Police Sgt. Arthur F. Romo said there was little authorities could do.

"It was a nice clean cut, so it wasn't an accident," Romo said. But, he added, "unless we get a witness or someone tells us what happened, it's pretty much dead in the water."

Meanwhile, in Fountain Valley, City Councilman Fred Voss faces a recall election.

Voss, a 52-year-old telephone systems manager, was arrested by Santa Ana police in January after offering $20 to an undercover officer disguised as a prostitute. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of soliciting a prostitute, was fined $300 and sentenced to three years' probation.

Voss resigned his post of mayor in the furor that followed the incident but refused to relinquish his City Council post.

By July, outraged local residents had submitted the 7,000 signatures needed to qualify the recall of Voss for the ballot.

Staff writers Jeffrey A. Perlman, Bill Billiter, Rose Ellen O'Connor and Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.

TODAY IS ELECTION DAY

County voters will go to polling places today to cast ballots on varied countywide and local issues, as well as school district races.

* Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

* For poll information, call the registrar of voters at (714) 567-7600.

ON THE BALLOT

Measure M, the proposed sales tax for transportation projects, is the only countywide issue facing all 1.15 million registered voters in today's election, but more than a fourth of Orange County's voters also will have a chance to decide school board races, cityhood and other matters.

Elections in Orange County today:

Countywide: Measure M, a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for an estimated $3.1 billion in traffic improvements.

Irvine: Measure N, an initiative sponsored by anti-gay-rights activists seeking to remove homosexuals from protection under the city's Human Rights Ordinance.

Laguna Niguel: Measure O, a cityhood proposal for residents who now live in an unincorporated area administered by the county. Also on the area ballot is Measure P, which asks voters to decide whether City Council members should be elected by district or at-large, if a majority of voters approve cityhood. Voters also will be asked to choose five City Council members from among 23 candidates. In addition, residents will be asked to vote for two incumbents to continue serving on the Laguna Niguel Community Services District, should cityhood fail.

La Palma: Voters will consider Measure Q, a proposed 4% utility users tax, to raise money for the city's general fund and the Police and Recreation departments.

Newport Beach: Measure R would authorize the city to extend for 10 years the current lease on property at Coast Highway and Newport Boulevard to encourage private redevelopment of the site. The current lease to private businesses there expires in 2008. Also in Newport Beach, voters will consider Measure S, which would allow the sale of an unused, vacant, $350,000 city-owned lot on River Avenue to raise money for libraries and parks.

Fountain Valley: Voters will decide whether to recall City Councilman Fred Voss, who was arrested last January for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer during a crackdown on prostitution. Voters also will decide whether Voss' successor shall be elected or appointed if the recall is successful.

Voters will elect two trustees each in the Coast Community College District and Garden Grove Unified, Irvine Unified and Santa Ana Unified school districts.

Three trustees each will be selected in the Newport-Mesa Unified, Huntington Beach Union High, Anaheim City and Lowell Joint school districts.

In the Orange Unified School District, voters will choose four trustees to serve four-year terms, and one to fill the remaining two years of an unexpired term.

Voters will elect four trustees in the Silverado-Modjeska Park and Recreation District.

Property owners in the Los Alisos Water District will choose two directors from among three candidates. The district includes parts of Lake Forest and El Toro, and landowners cast one vote for each dollar of their assessed property value by mail-in ballot.

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