Palo Alto rejects recommendations to have [Santa Clara] county vet its ballot questions

City's response letter claims Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury proposals would impinge on city's constitutional rights

Defying recommendations from the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury, Palo Alto will not submit its ballot measure questions to the county for review before future elections, according to a response letter that the City Council plans to approve next week.

Palo Alto was among the cities that the grand jury singled out for falling short earlier this year after it conducted a survey of misleading language on ballot measures. The report, titled "If you only read the ballot, you're being duped," analyzed what the grand jury called the "tricks of the trade" that municipalities use to make their ballot measures seem more favorable to voters.

The grand jury specifically took issue with the wording of Measure L, which affirmed the city's historic policy of transferring revenues from the gas utility to the general fund and which overwhelmingly passed last month. The grand jury felt that the phrase in the ballot that states that the tax would be in place "until ended by voters" is misleading because the measure itself does not include a mechanism for ending the practice.

The language, which was also found in other jurisdictions, is cited as an example of poorly worded ballot questions that "may not be illegal, but if they withhold information to shield what is really at issue, they are unethical," the report stated.

"There are insufficient workable checks and balances to prevent this ongoing issue from being curtailed," the grand jury report states. "Not doing anything about this only adds to the distrust of government."

But its proposed remedies — submitting ballot language to a Santa Clara County counsel or to a third-party panel for review — are unlikely to be adopted any time soon. In a defiant response to the report, Palo Alto officials strongly disputed the grand jury's finding that Measure L language was in any way misleading and argued that the proposed remedies would trample on the local control over elections.

The response letter, which the council is scheduled to approve on Dec. 12, maintains that the Measure L language is accurate despite the fact that the measure does not specify a process for voter repeal. That's because the state's Election Code already gives voters that power through the process of circulating a petition.

"It is therefore a true statement that if a tax ordinance is approved by the voters and does not have a fixed end date, then it will be in effect until it is ended or repealed by the voters," the letter states.

City officials are also pushing back against the grand jury's recommendations and argue that ballot language is already well scrutinized by professional staff, approved by the council and subject to legal challenges if it falls short. The formal response, which the city is required to submit, reflects that arguments that City Attorney Molly Stump and Mayor Pat Burt made in the days after the grand jury report issued the report. Burt told this news organization at the time that he believes the grand jury misunderstood local election law and called Measure L language "common and appropriate."

While Palo Alto's response letter concurs with the grand jury's finding that "local governmental entities that sponsor ballot measures have a responsibility to ensure that ballot measure language is clear, accurate, and useful to voters," it disagreed with all three of the recommendations that it was asked to respond to: voluntarily submitting ballot questions to the county counsel; approving a local ordinance or resolution requiring counsel review of ballot questions; and submitting them to a specially created Good Governance in Ballots Commission. The city argues that these recommendations are not warranted and makes clear that they will not be implemented.

The county counsel, the letter notes, is "appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the County Board of Supervisors." The grand jury's proposal to empower the county counsel to potentially modify ballot questions is "not appropriate for cities like Palo Alto, which are separate government entities with independent constitutional authority to control our own elections," according to the letter.

"Giving authority to the County Counsel to review and edit ballot questions for the City of Palo Alto would impinge on Palo Alto's constitutional authority over its elections," the letter states. The effect would be to reduce local control by shifting authority to a government entity that is not accountable to Palo Alto residents."

Palo Alto Weekly
by Gennady Sheyner
December 5, 2022