Editorial: Stop playing games with ballot measures

Published: Friday, Jul. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 5, 2013 - 6:58 am

The ridiculous fiasco with the official arguments for the city of Sacramento's ballot measures last November can't be forgotten – and must never be repeated.

To its credit, the Sacramento County Grand Jury is keeping a spotlight on the consequences to the voting public of such political games. In its annual report last week, the grand jury called on the City Council to take concrete steps to make sure similar shenanigans won't happen again.

Here's a quick reminder of what transpired: Last July, the council agreed to put before voters Measure U, the half-cent sales tax increase to restore public safety and other basic city services. In a highly unusual though completely legal move, the council assigned itself both the "pro" and "con" arguments to appear in the official voters guide. That effectively blocked any outside group from making the "no" case.

It only went downhill from there.

First, the three council members assigned to write the "pro" argument recruited the police and fire chiefs to put their names to it, the idea being they would be more credible with voters. But the grand jury says that since the council members didn't sign the argument, it would have lost its priority place in line if another argument had been filed.

Then, Mayor Kevin Johnson, assigned to author the "con" argument, missed the deadline to submit it. The grand jury found the failure "was negligent, not intentional." Regardless, it resulted in sample ballot packets going out without an argument against the measure, which passed overwhelmingly.

Understandably, opponents of Measure U were outraged.

Also not happy was Assemblyman Dan Logue, a Marysville Republican. He authored a bill to limit city councils in California to submitting arguments only in favor of measures they place on the ballot. After being amended to just extend the deadline by one day when no ballot argument is submitted in time, Assembly Bill 193 got out of the Assembly Elections Committee. But the measure didn't make it out of Appropriations after its cost was estimated at $135,000 to $270,000.

With no change in state law on the horizon, the onus is squarely on Sacramento council members.

The grand jury is calling on them to pass rules banning the council from authoring arguments on both sides of ballot measures it puts on the ballot. Otherwise, it says, the council could "effectively limit legitimate opposition to a measure, either by submitting a token opposition argument or failing to submit an opposition argument."

Also, the grand jury concluded that when council members recruit others to sign ballot arguments – which they also did without public notice on the charter commission and yard waste measures on the November ballot – it is inconsistent with state and city election codes. The grand jury says the council should prohibit that practice, too.

As the grand jury report points out, council members had fair warning. After the 2010 election, the council received a report on ballot argument issues. It did nothing – then created more problems last year. The council is to respond to the grand jury by September. There is no excuse for not fixing these flaws before the 2014 elections.

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