Marin IJ

Ross Valley flood vote should stand

Staff Report
Marin Independent Journal
Article Launched:07/31/2007 11:03:40 PM PDT

THE ROSS VALLEY flood fee vote should stand. Supervisor Hal Brown and the county should resist calls to hold a new election.

There is no question that the mail-in election that concluded on June 25 was one of the most controversial elections in Marin history, for a variety of reasons.

First, it was very close. It passed by 65 votes.

Second, 21 percent of the 8,059 ballots cast were ruled invalid because property owners failed to sign and date their ballot, as required.

Third, an unofficial tally of the 1,678 disqualified ballots paid for and counted by San Anselmo attorney Ford Greene revealed that if they have been ruled valid, the flood fee would have lost by 147 votes.

We don't know why so many voters didn't sign their ballots. They could have been confused by the signing requirement; they could have been protesting because they thought the ballot should have been secret; they could have forgotten; they could have been someone other than the person whose name was on the ballot.

Both Greene and the Marin United Taxpayers Association are considering filing lawsuits against the vote. Greene says his suit will argue that the design of the ballot was flawed.

Some residents are calling for a new election.

The election was hardly perfect, but it would be an even bigger mistake to invalidate the results and vote again.

The 15,000 property owners who received ballots were required to sign their ballots for them to be valid. There was a place to sign their names and date on the front of the ballot. The instructions on the back said the vote would not count otherwise. Perhaps those instructions weren't prominent enough or in the right place, but there is no debate that they were there.

The county had no choice but to rule unsigned ballots invalid. They legally could not be counted.

There is no evidence of any attempt to sway the results of the election. Both sides played under the same rules. The conditions may not have been ideal, but the playing field was level.

When the valid ballots were counted, the flood fee passed. The result has been certified by the county Board of Supervisors. It was close, but the fee was approved.

The need for flood control in the Ross Valley is urgent. The region regularly has been devastated by major floods in the past 50 years. The New Year's Eve flood of 2005 did $100 million damage in Marin - most of that in the Ross Valley. The fee will raise $40 million over 20 years.

Hal Brown, who has represented the Ross Valley for 25 years and who has been the driving force behind efforts to reduce the risk of flooding there, knows that if the election is challenged in court, it could take several years to resolve the case. That means major flood-control measures could be put on hold for nearly a decade. He believes the vote should stand, but is worried that legal challenges could delay solutions to the flooding. He knows the Ross Valley will flood again.

He also knows a new election would be a gamble, but if the fee were approved, flood-control work could start right away.

It would send the wrong message to invalidate an election and hold another one because there is controversy over the result. Mere controversy is not enough. Our election process, even when we don't like the results, must be sacrosanct. Rules are rules. Valid votes counted. Invalid votes did not.

To be sure, the county needs to learn from this mail-in election. Ballot instructions need to be clear. If voters have to sign their ballots, that needs to be made obvious in big, bold type, not in small type on the back of the ballot. Elections should be run by the county's Registrar of Voters - not consultants hired by another county department.

The county should consider surveying those who cast votes on the flood fee. If they didn't sign, they should be asked why. Not how they voted, but why they didn't sign their ballots.

The process must be above criticism. Unfortunately, this time criticism is justified. We understand why so many residents are unhappy with the election.

But the voters - the 80 percent who followed the rules - have spoken.

Marin County needs to respect their decision. And if necessary, defend it in court.


The Ross Valley flood fee required a simple majority vote for passage because county officials said it was a fee and did not require a two-thirds majority as required for taxes by Proposition 13. Only property owners were allowed to vote. Some property owners, like local government agencies, were exempt. The fee will cost property owners an average of $125 a year.

The vote was held under Proposition 218, which requires local governments to hold "protest" elections before imposing user fees on property owners. Items on a Proposition 218 ballot require only a majority to pass. The group behind Proposition 13 created Proposition 218 to address loopholes in the landmark 1978 tax measure.

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