Most of us aspire to the concept of ‘one man, one vote’. Our country was born in the Boston Tea Party with a cry against “taxation without representation” but is the converse true? Are those who pay higher taxes entitled to a larger voice in the governance of our city?
All homeowners should have received a ballot for an increase in the Storm Water Management Fee. This fee would cover operation of and improvements to the city’s storm water management system. Although most of Palo Alto is in Flood Zone ‘X’ which means little danger of flooding, we do live near a number of creeks which could flood and cause problems. It was noted that several years ago, one of the agencies in San Jose voted not to pay $7.5M to improve Coyote Creek because they didn’t think any flood damage would result in more that that amount! Fast forward to last month, the damage is estimated at $500M, not to mention how people’s lives were destroyed. Some may never recover. For more information about the program, visit http://paloaltostormwater.org.
Some of you may have noticed that the ballot includes your name and address, parcel number (APN) and your signature and that the accompanying letter states that
“Ballots will not be removed from their envelopes until the tabulation begins. As required by state law, during and after tabulation, ballots will be treated as public records.”
Why are these ballots were not treated as normal ‘secret’ ballots, where your name and signature are on the outer envelope and this is separated from the ballot before tabulation? The explanation received from the City Clerk’s office was:
“Section 4(e) of Article XIIID of the California Constitution (aka Prop. 218) requires that assessment ballots be “weighted according to the proportional financial obligation of the affected property.” This means that owners of properties with higher assessments have greater influence than owners of properties with lower assessments. Specific information about the property associated with each ballot is required to determine its weight, and under state law this information becomes public record after the ballots are tabulated. In Greene v. Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation Dist. (2010) 49 Cal.4th 277, the California Supreme Court held that assessment ballot information, including the name and address associated with each vote, is appropriately treated as public record after ballot tabulation.”
The fee is calculated on the basis of ERUs (Equivalent Residential Units) which are defined as the Impervious Area (Sq. Ft.) / 2500. Residential properties are assigned ERUs based on lot size which assumes a ratio of impervious area (driveways, sidewalks, etc) to open soil areas. Large commercial properties, many of which are located away from the most vulnerable areas of Palo Alto, would have much higher ratios (parking lots, etc) and hence higher fees. Does this mean that commercial property owners have a much larger voice in determining the fate of the flood control projects?
But if you read the cover letter which accompanies the ballot:
“…The Storm Water Management Fee will only be approved if the number of Ballots cast (and not withdrawn) in favor of the fee exceed the number of Ballots cast (and not withdrawn) in opposition to the fee. Each ballot counts as a single vote…”
And the ballot itself states:
“You will receive a separate ballot for each parcel you own that is subject to the fees, and one vote may be cast for each such parcel.”
Regardless of how one feels about the validity and value of the fee and the requested increase, in the light of such discrepancies in the stated ballot procedures, how can we feel assured that the information we are receiving from the City is accurate, that the ballots will be tabulated correctly and that the results will represent the will of the residents?