September 7, 2012
San Jose Mercury News
Taxpayer group sues Santa Clara Valley Water district over proposed parcel tax
By Paul Rogers
Seeking to nullify a proposed $543 million parcel tax on the November ballot over a two-word clerical error, the Silicon Valley Taxpayers' Association on Friday filed a lawsuit against the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
The taxpayers' association noted in the suit that the water district violated California's open meetings law when it called a special board meeting on Aug. 8 to shorten the text of the tax, known as Measure B, by two words, removing "as" and "No." (as in "number") from the measure.
The 3-minute board meeting was needed because when the water district -- a public agency based in San Jose -- first turned in the text of the measure to Santa Clara County elections office on Aug. 6, it had 77 words. State law only allows 75.
After elections officials notified the district, the agency held a rushed meeting on Aug. 8 to cut the two words. But the district did not post a public agenda on its website, as required by state law, more than 24 hours ahead of time.
The taxpayers' association argued Friday that the vote to shorten the wording is invalid because state law says that any action taken by a government agency in violation of the open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, can later be found null.
"The law is the law," said John Roeder, president of the taxpayers' association.
If a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge agrees, Roeder said, the practical effect would be that results of the measure would not count because it is too late to pull it off the November ballot.
Water district officials said Friday they will vigorously fight the lawsuit, calling it a frivolous claim.
"We have not been served with the complaint but feel strongly that the district made a good faith effort to notify the public in accordance with the Brown Act," said water district CEO Beau Goldie. "It's regrettable that this baseless suit will require the use of taxpayer funds to defend."
Roeder is also CEO of Great Oaks Water Co., a private company that provides water to customers in South San Jose. Great Oaks has been at odds with the water district in the past over such issues as the "pump tax" that the district charges the company, other water providers and residents to pump groundwater from wells.
If voters approve Measure B by a two-thirds margin, it will continue an existing parcel tax for another 15 years, starting in 2013, for flood control, dam upgrades and other projects. The tax currently costs $54 a home and would increase by 3 percent a year.
The taxpayers' group opposes Measure B, saying the water district has wasted public money in the past on high salaries, rich benefits and questionable projects, from hiking trails to a $1.4 million gazebo in Alviso.
Last week, the water district won another legal challenge that threatened the parcel tax measure, when a judge agreed with its attorneys and ordered county election officials to fix an error in the date of the measure that the water district staff had made in drafting it.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN
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