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Authority Might Rescind Controversial Fee : Schools: Joint panel of trustees will reconsider annual levy in wake of strong opposition. Legal challenges are feared as well as a division in school officials and constituents.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Less than two weeks after imposing a controversial $50-per-year fee on property owners to maintain school grounds and facilities, a joint authority of trustees from four school districts will meet tonight to consider rescinding the action.

Members of the West Orange County Schools Finance Authority said Monday that they are reconsidering their unanimous July 25 decision because the issue poses potentially costly legal challenges and threatens to divide school district constituencies.

The five-member authority--composed of trustees from the Huntington Beach Union High, Huntington Beach City, Ocean View and Westminster school districts--is scheduled to meet at 7:30 p.m. in the board room of the high school district’s central offices.

Reversing the fee would signify a remarkable about-face. The members enacted the fee, without comment, defying an angry crowd of more than 1,000 people who packed a seven-hour hearing.

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Although tonight’s special meeting was not formally announced until late Monday, trustees and a leading opponent of the assessment said they have discussed reversing the move during the past week in a series of closed-door meetings.

“So, I’m not surprised. But this is good to hear,” said James M. Righeimer, president of the Huntington Beach/Fountain Valley Board of Realtors, which has led a well-orchestrated campaign against the assessment and has threatened to fight the fee in court.

In addition to those meetings, each of the four school boards has held closed-session meetings since last week to discuss the threatened legal and legislative challenges to the fee.

Some authority members said Monday that since meeting with attorneys, they question whether their action would hold up in court and that such a legal feud may cost more money and time than they are willing to spend.

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“If this were to go to court, I would like to think it would be a sure thing that it would stand up,” said authority member Jerry Sullivan. “But we may not be so sure that it is. And we couldn’t afford to lose a court case.”

The Board of Realtors had threatened a lawsuit on the grounds that the authority, by imposing the fee, misused the state Lighting and Landscaping Act of 1972--which allows public agencies to form maintenance assessment districts without voter approval. And, because a vote of the people is not required, the Board of Realtors also charges the assessment violates the intent of Proposition 13.

A statewide anti-tax group last week sued the Orange Unified School District for imposing a $30-per-year maintenance assessment, citing similar charges.

The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District has also enacted a maintenance fee, charging property owners $17 a year. Four other districts in Orange County have either rejected or postponed forming maintenance assessment districts.

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Sheila Marcus, another member of the authority, said she has been forced to rethink her approval of the fee partly because of a bill introduced by state Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange), which would require two-thirds voter approval on assessment districts. If Lewis’ proposal were to become law, the districts could be stuck with huge outstanding debts and no revenue source to pay them back.

Marcus and Sullivan both said that because the issue has stirred such strong opposition among residents, they fear that it could deeply divide school officials and communities. A group of opponents, for example, has formed a committee with plans to attempt to recall trustees who support the fee.

“We have some very excellent board members . . . and I would hate to think that the screaming hyenas would use this one issue to wipe that away,” Sullivan said.

It remains uncertain, however, whether the majority of the authority members will vote to reverse the decision. Chairwoman Karen O’Bric and member Kathy Iverson said Monday that they stand by their original vote. The authority’s other member, Bonnie Castrey, declined comment.

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