Editorial Notebook: Political follies will imperil tax measure

08/22/2012 12:00 AM

08/25/2012 12:17 AM

Getting voters to increase their own taxes is difficult enough. When elected officials play fast and loose, approval is even less likely.

That could very well be the fate of Sacramento's proposed half-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 6 ballot.

I'm not saying that City Council members did anything illegal. On the letter of the law, they're almost certainly safe.

I do think voters deserve better. If they're more skeptical about entrusting City Hall with their taxes because of all the games, you can hardly blame them.

Let's go through the ugly blow-by-blow.

First, in an unusual maneuver, the City Council voted July 31 to reserve for itself both the pro and con arguments that will go out with sample ballots. That blocked outside groups or citizens from officially opposing the tax hike.

The council designated members Steve Cohn, Darrell Fong and Kevin McCarty to submit the argument in favor of Measure U. When the argument was handed in, however, their names were nowhere to be found.

Instead, they lassoed Police Chief Rick Braziel, Fire Chief Ray Jones, city parks Commissioner Araceli Mercado, restaurant owner Randall Selland and Land Park activist Mark Abrahams to sign it. The council members say the pro argument is more persuasive coming from well-known community leaders.

Probably so, but it still bothers me.

Cohn and McCarty told me that the council resolution authorized them only to "file" the argument – and did not require them to write and submit it under their signatures. They also point out that a similar switch happened in 2010 on Measure B, the utility tax rollback the city defeated, and on Measure C, the city's successful marijuana business tax, and that the city attorney has signed off.

There's another issue: Chiefs Braziel and Jones don't live in the city, so aren't eligible to vote on the measure. Cohn and McCarty say it's fine for the chiefs to sign the argument because they represent eligible voters. The city clerk says the chiefs are allowed to join an argument signed by other voters, as they did on Measure B.

Eye on Sacramento, a watchdog group, isn't persuaded by all the justifications. It plans to file complaints Sept. 4 with the Sacramento County grand jury, the state attorney general and the secretary of state, seeking investigations of what it calls city officials' "shenanigans."

There's also the snag on the argument against the measure.

Mayor Kevin Johnson, who asked to file that argument, inexplicably and embarrassingly missed the Aug. 8 deadline to submit it – just by an hour, the mayor's office says.

After the City Clerk's Office refused to extend the deadline, Eye on Sacramento went to court. On Monday, it lost. That's too bad. Voters deserve as much information as possible to make up their minds.

On Tuesday, the mayor's office sent me a copy of the argument. It says the tax hike would burden families, drive businesses out of the city and reward politicians who have refused to make city government more efficient. It asserts that there is "absolutely no guarantee" the $28 million a year in tax proceeds would go to police, fire and other basic services.

It would have been nice if all voters could get the argument with their sample ballots.

It is signed by publisher Cecily Hastings, the Rev. Darryl Heath and developer Jon Bagatelos. Curiously, the mayor's signature is missing.

But on this measure, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

frhee@sacbee.com

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To read Mayor Kevin Johnson's argument against the tax increase, which will not be included with sample ballots, go to:

www.sacbee.com/swarm

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