Group sues Modesto over general sales tax ballot measure

The Stanislaus Taxpayers Association is suing Modesto over its sales tax measure on the November ballot, claiming the language violates election law and misleads voters.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Stanislaus Superior Court and asks a judge to give the city the opportunity to change the language or have the judge stop the city from using it on the ballot measure.

City Attorney Adam Lindgren said Friday that the city was served with the lawsuit late Thursday. He said legal staff is reviewing it before meeting with the City Council to discuss it. He declined to comment further, but he and other city officials have said the measure’s language passes legal muster.

The lawsuit reiterates many of the arguments the association has made to the city about Measure G, a 1/2 percent general sales tax. For instance, the association says the ballot label for the measure uses false and misleading language. Here is the measure’s ballot label:

“Safer Neighborhoods Initiative: To make neighborhoods safer by restoring police patrols, crime prevention, gang suppression and youth development efforts; removing tagging; reducing nuisance properties; strengthening fire/emergency services; increasing neighborhood collaboration; and maintaining other general city services, shall the City of Modesto enact a 1/2 percent general sales tax that cannot be taken by the State, expires in 8 years, and requires annual audits, reports by a citizen oversight board, and all funds be spent in Modesto?”

The lawsuit claims the ballot label’s title – “Safer Neighborhoods Initiative” – is a politically charged phrase and because the measure is a general tax, it can be spent on any general government purpose and the tax cannot be dedicated to making neighborhoods safer. City officials say their intent is to spend the tax carrying out the initiative, which calls for such actions as hiring more police officers.

The lawsuit also takes issue with how the ballot label describes the tax increase, calling it political puffery and a blatant sales pitch to convince voters to vote “yes.” The lawsuit states it is not until two-thirds of the way through the ballot label that the city identifies the measure as a general sales tax.

The ballot language for Measure G is substantially different from the ballot language for the three other Modesto measures that will be on the November ballot.

For instance, here is the ballot language for Measure I: “Shall the City of Modesto 2008 Urban Area General Plan be amended to establish limit lines (boundaries) for nonresidential and medium and large lot residential development, outside of which areas new development subject to the limits would require voter approval?”

A citizens group called Stamp Out Sprawl gathered enough signatures to qualify Measure I for the ballot in an attempt to protect prime farmland. Yet there is nothing in the ballot language regarding that point. SOS leader and former Councilman Denny Jackman confirmed that the ballot language was written by the city.

The association also claims in its lawsuit that Measure G’s impartial analysis prepared by the city attorney’s office is false and misleading. The lawsuit asks a judge to give the city the opportunity to change the language or have the judge stop the city from using it.

“No matter how you feel about the merits of Measure G, the process is one that should be fair and impartial,” Stanislaus Taxpayers Association President Dave Thomas said. “The government should not be allowed to place its thumb on the scale to attempt to sway the outcome of a vote.”

The association is represented by the Sacramento law firm of Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk. No court dates have been set in this matter.

Much of the Safer Neighborhoods Initiative calls for increasing public safety spending. Thomas said the city should have to put a public safety tax on the ballot. As a specific tax, it could be spent only on public safety.

But specific taxes require two-thirds voter approval to pass, while a general sales tax requires a simple majority. Mayor Garrad Marsh has said that he would support a specific tax for public safety but did not believe it would garner enough votes. City officials say after years of budget and staffing cuts, Modesto needs additional revenue to provide residents with essential services. For instance, the city has lost about 20 percent of its police officer positions since about 2008.

Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316