San Jose Mercury News
August 29, 2012
(This article is also available at the Web site of the San Jose Mercury News, here.)
Barely a week after a two-word clerical error threatened to derail its $548 million parcel tax set for the November ballot, Silicon Valley's largest water provider has discovered another error in the measure, and scrambled Tuesday to fix it.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District held a hastily called meeting Tuesday afternoon after discovering that the text of its parcel tax, known as Measure B, contains the wrong date.
The legal language that the district turned in to Santa Clara County elections officials on Aug. 8 says the tax for flood control projects, dam maintenance and environmental projects -- if approved by voters -- will be collected "for a total of 15 years," starting July 1, 2013, and ending June 30, 2029.
The trouble is, that's a 16-year period.
The water board voted unanimously Tuesday to put in a new date, 2028. But the deadline for changing ballot measures passed two weeks ago.
The district hired San Leandro attorney Tom Willis, an elections law expert, who notified the county registrar's office Tuesday that he intends to file a legal action as soon as Wednesday in Santa Clara County Superior Court to try to convince a judge to allow the ballot measure to be amended.
On Tuesday, water district CEO Beau Goldie took the blame.
"I wanted to apologize to the board, the community and staff for the mistakes that have resulted in the need for these recent corrections," Goldie announced at the water district board meeting. "It is my responsibility to bring quality products to the board and the community, and I take full responsibility."
The error with the date, first noticed by retired software engineer Randy Shingai of San Jose, follows a mistake made Aug. 6, when the district turned in a 77-word title and summary to county elections officials for the ballot measure. State law allows no more than 75 words.
When the district held a rushed board meeting two days later to cut two words out of the measure, it did not post an agenda on its website 24 hours ahead of time, as required by state open-meetings laws, and the Silicon Valley Taxpayers' Association has threatened a lawsuit that could pull it off the ballot.
John Roeder, president of the taxpayers' association, said Tuesday his group will meet this week to decide whether to file the suit.
The ballot measure was under the oversight of three top water district officials: government relations director Rick Callender, clerk of the board Michele King, and district counsel Stan Yamamoto.
Goldie urged voters not to hold the recent problems with the measure against it.
"It is a very good package," he said.
The problems, however, represent a significant challenge, experts said.
"The timing couldn't be worse," said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University.
Gerston noted that the water district already is under fire for two other issues. Those are the recent revelations that the district has attempted to get state taxpayers to reimburse it for hundreds of thousands of dollars simply for preparing agendas, and that this week, Goldie and water district board Chairwoman Linda LeZotte hastily pulled an item off the district's Tuesday agenda that would have given the district's part-time board members lifetime medical benefits and pensions.
"Two-thirds margin is very difficult to get," said Gerston. "If people see this as another problem for the water district, it will give voters one more reason to ask, 'Is this where I want to spend my tax money?'"
The parcel tax, originally known as the "Clean, Safe Creeks" measure, was narrowly approved by voters in 2000. It costs the typical household in Santa Clara County $54 a year, increasing by 3 percent a year. It is set to expire June 30, 2016.
District officials put it on this year's ballot, hoping that the high turnout from the presidential election would help their chances. If the measure fails, it will almost certainly result in cutbacks, layoffs and canceled projects at the agency.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN