News

Palo Alto rejects recommendations to have county vet its ballot questions

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

Palo Alto City Hall. Embarcadero Media file photo

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."

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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.

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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."

Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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Palo Alto rejects recommendations to have county vet its ballot questions

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

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, Dec 5, 2022, 9:49 am

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."

Comments

MyFeelz
Registered user
JLS Middle School
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:02 am
MyFeelz, JLS Middle School
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:02 am

"Balls," said the Queen. "If I had 'em I'd be King." I'm filing this comment under "Crimes & Incidents". Unless PA has been declared a dictatorship, which I'm pretty sure hasn't happened. I could file it under "Sports" but there should be a "Rough Sports" choice.

"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" -- basically our King is Stanford and he's having none of this.

"The city (Palo Alto) was established in 1894 by the American industrialist Leland Stanford when he founded Stanford University in memory of his son, Leland Stanford Jr. Palo Alto includes portions of Stanford University and borders East Palo Alto."

When it all comes down to it, King Stanford makes all the rules and is telling the County to F off. You can't fight City Hall, especially when City Hall is hiding under the King's skirt.


Local Resident
Registered user
Community Center
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:12 am
Local Resident, Community Center
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:12 am

Talking about making a big deal out of a small nit. Apparently the Grand Jury has a lot of time on their hands to manufacture issues they can then proceed to express outrage with. They could be focused on improving education, fighting poverty, reducing crime or best of all focusing on why our criminal justice system is so broken but instead their doing this?


Dustin Long
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:23 am
Dustin Long, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:23 am

The Civil Grand Jury is a toothless gathering of civilian watchdogs who can only make recomendations.

The City of Palo Alto is thumbing its nose at their proposals because it can.

Whatever the Civil Grand Jury has to say is ignorable.


Jerry
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:57 am
Jerry, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 11:57 am

I read the report and I read the text of the ballot measure. The report does have quite a bit of teeth to it.

Measure L uses words like "existing and decades-old practice" and "no more than" (18%). The language of Measure L is worded such that you come away thinking (a) why wouldn't I want vote yes on this? and (b) If it's been going on for decades, it must be okay.

Interestingly, most other local cities do this type of wordsmithing but Palo Alto's ballot measures are over-the-top in the mind control department, IMHO.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 5, 2022 at 12:27 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 12:27 pm

Sorry, it's not a small nit; it's part of an ongoing pattern where our "leaders" continue to deceive us with how they frame things whether it's ballot language or their laughable misleading "surveys" where there's no way of saying "No, we don't want X. We have other bigger priorities and they are..."

This has been going on way too long, dating back from the time our "leaders" crafted a survey question about whether putting housing in Stanford Research Park and they had the absurd question about "Do you think infringing on Stanford's rights will endanger education as we know it."

And of course there's the recent "survey" about the $144,000,000 Fiber project where they're already taking deposits for it WHILE eliminating all ways to say we DON'T want it and have other priorities. Like more police, full library hours etc etc etc.


PST
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2022 at 1:06 pm
PST, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 1:06 pm

Rather than being concerned about not stating a way to end the fund transfer, I found the language for this measure on the ballot to be lacking and certainly written with a positive spin towards a yes vote. I wondered what the utility department could do with the $7 million transferred to the city if they got to keep it instead. For example, whatever happened to undergrounding utilities which seemed to stall once the north part of town got help? As for the fiber issue survey I thought it terribly one sided and weak. I am not convinced the majority of people want it and wonder if the city has the bandwidth to accomplish this and compete with the many other options available now from the companies who already are doing this. If the city really needs that $7 million I think it could be found with a higher tax on businesses and/or taxing owners of the investors/owners of all the houses that sit empty(aka ghost houses) while there are so many people unhoused. While I am pleased for any progress with efforts that are being made to accommodate the building of more affordable homes, I also notice the north part of the city seems to not be in play. And why hasn’t the city purchased the old Fry’s property or taken it by emanate domain? Very few care about preserving the old cannery and the potential for lots more below market housing is vastly more important seems to me.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2022 at 2:03 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 2:03 pm

Oh, for heavens sake. The press coverage of this ballot measure (and its language) BEFORE the election was so intensive that, unless a voter lives completely under a rock, you could not possibly have misunderstood this.

I wish the county would spend my county tax dollars more usefully. This exercise is a waste of time and money. I voted for this measure, because I understand the city's need for the funds. I'm not an idiot. I did my homework. Please move on. We have much more important problems to solve -- with which the county could be a helpful partner if they cared to be helpful.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2022 at 2:08 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Dec 5, 2022 at 2:08 pm

OF COURSE Palo Alto is rejecting the suggestion. It makes sense that the City wants to maintain control over this as this retains the latitude to write a ballot measure in a way that drives a desired outcome. Who wants an objective review aimed at putting only clear language on the ballot?


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