Ballot Title Editorial Mercury News

Santa Clara County cities reject call for independent citizen review of ballot measure language

Wording of some recent measures have been “confusing” and “misleading” and require outside review, Civil Grand Jury report says

By ALDO TOLEDO | | Bay Area News Group

Santa Clara County cities are rejecting calls for an independent, citizen-led commission to review ballot measure language following an investigation by the civil grand jury that found the wording of some measures “confusing” and “misleading.”

In a recent report titled “If you only read the ballot, you’re being duped,” the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury stated that while “poorly worded ballot questions may not be illegal,” they are “unethical” and there are “insufficient workable checks and balances to prevent this ongoing issue from being curtailed.”

The onus for the report was the misleading Santa Clara Valley Water District Measure A term limit measure, which jurors say “failed to inform the reader that each member of the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisor was already limited to two terms and that the ballot measure proposed to extend years served, not “limit” them.”

“By not being transparent, this tactic of ballot question drafting is tantamount to a lie by omission,” the report says. “It borders on deceiving the public.”

To counter the effects that “tactical wordplay,” big money and lack of oversight can have on misleading voters to reject or support ballot measures, the civil grand jury is recommending the county create an independent, citizen-led oversight committee to review measures and reject bad language. It also recommends that agencies “voluntarily submit their ballot questions to the County Counsel for review prior to submission to the Registrar of Voters,” as well as the Good Governance in Ballots Commission.

“Not doing anything about this only adds to the distrust of government,” the report says. “The Civil Grand Jury recommends that elected officials be held accountable — ballot questions must be transparent and clear in order to enable today’s voters to make informed decisions.”

In February, the water district, a government agency based in San Jose that provides water and flood protection to 2 million people, voted 4-3 to spend $3.2 million to place Measure A on the Santa Clara County ballot.

After the district spent $60,000 for two internal polls that found likely voters opposed an extension of the term limits, the board approved ballot language that critics said was deliberately misleading and omitted crucial information.

The ballot language failed to note that in 2010, Santa Clara County voters already had voted to limit board members to three successive four-year terms. It only asked instead if they wanted to “limit” the board to four 4-year terms.

In an unusual move, the San Jose City Council voted 7-3 in April to formally oppose the measure. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called it “self-serving dishonesty” and said the $3.2 million spent to place the measure on the ballot should have instead been spent to reduce residents’ water bills or expand drought programs.

The Grand Jury says that the current sole remedy — initiating a court challenge — falls short when faced with misleading ballot measure language.

“There is no realistically expedient method to challenge problematic ballot questions,” the report says.

But so far several cities in the county have rejected calls for more oversight on ballot measure language, a process controlled completely by local officials, including Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Los Altos and others.

At a recent meeting, the Palo Alto city council voted 6-1 — councilmember Greg Tanaka abstaining — to send a response to the grand jury agreeing that there’s a need for impartial language in ballot measures but rejecting any calls for outside oversight.

“At a time when the state is usurping all the local juridisction’s local controls and invading our home rules, it would not be wise to reduce our local control by shifting authority to a government agency that is not accountable to Palo Alto residents,” Vice Mayor Lydia Kou said. “There is some, perhaps, misunderstanding or misrepresentation by the grand jury on how we do our ballots.”

Mayor Pat Burt said he doesn’t believe any of the city’s past measures have been deceptive.

“It was very disappointing that the grand jury really overstepped in their characterizations,”  Burt said. “I will note I was not in favor of the language valley water used to extend their term limits but it was pointed out to me that it was the exact same language the (Santa Clara County) Board of Supervisors used just a few years before without much criticism. I think that I would argue that if you read the grand jury report without the response you maybe were duped.”

The Santa Clara City Council also recently voted against any outside review of ballot measures and said they want the city to stay in control of its elections. But Vice Mayor Suds Jain said he was “extremely disappointed” in what he believed was an “underhanded move by the water district” for claiming “to put in term limits, but they actually expanded their terms.

“It was very, very disingenuous what they did,” he said.

In Mountain View, Mayor Lucas Ramirez said he also doesn’t want a citizen-led commission or outside review of ballot measure language because the city doesn’t take deceptive tactics.

“In Mountain View we don’t have a history of writing deceptive language to try and encourage the votes to vote one way or another, this isn’t Valley Water, right?,” Ramirez said. “I’m not persuaded that creating a citizen commissions will solve any problems in Mountain View If that becomes a problem in the future that’s something we can revisit but right now I don’t think it’s an issue.”

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