County's shenanigans didn't stop Measure E

T hey nearly pulled it off.

Stanislaus County officials did everything within their power -- and beyond -- in an attempt to derail Measure E, the Stamp Out Sprawl initiative voters passed Tuesday night. Measure E gives voters a say whenever the supervisors want to let builders put housing developments on ag land in the county's unincorporated areas.

They forced SOS's backers to wait more than a year to get it on the ballot. When the SOS folks gathered enough signatures, the county attorneys stuck it with a cumbersome and threatening formal title: "Thirty Year Land Use Restriction Initiative."

They might as well have named it the "We Will Take Your First-Born Child, Tap Your Phone Lines and Deport You to New Guinea Land Condemnation Initiative."

Then, as SOS backers appeared to be gaining momentum, the supervisors hatched their own plan, which, if victorious, would have allowed them to retain control. Under their Measure L pitch, the supervisors would have picked a 15-person committee to make recommendations for rewriting the county's general plan, which guides growth.

The county gave its version a warmer and fuzzier title: "Stanislaus County Responsible Planning and Growth Control Initiative."

That translated to "Trust Us (... wink)," despite the county's track record of allowing homes in unincorporated areas, which is what compelled the SOS people to organize in the first place.

Without understanding the merits of either measure, which word is more likely to wow you -- "Restriction" or "Responsible"?

The supervisors clearly wanted their measure to win. But if neither E nor L had gotten more than the necessary 50 percent of the vote, that would have been OK, too, because nothing would have changed and they would have retained their power.

If not for the persistence of Measure E proponents, led by Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh and former Councilman Denny Jackman, the county might have misdirected Measure L to victory.

While voters passed both measures,

Measure E prevailed because it got more votes.

Indeed, supervisors and other county officials succeeded in confusing voters -- just not enough.

According to the Stanislaus County clerk-recorder's office, Measure E got 47,177 of the 70,482 votes cast, or 67 percent.

Measure L received 44,729 "yes" votes among 70,527 cast, or 63.4 percent. But there is another category beyond "yes" and "no" that spoke volumes. It's called the "under votes."

These represent people who voted on some races or propositions but ignored others: 5,585 voters who couldn't or wouldn't decide on Measure E and 5,545 who skipped Measure L.

Those numbers are huge, especially when you consider that only two other races on the ballot -- statewide Propositions 91 and 92 -- generated anything close. About 4,713 voters ignored Proposition 91, a discombobulated transportation funding initiative that failed, and 3,547 skipped Proposition 92, a rejected community colleges funding initiative.

Some races simply are destined to incur voter apathy. More than 23,000 Stanislaus County voters opted not to vote for any of the state judges in November 2006. I suspect the vast majority of voters knew nothing about any of the justices, all of whom ran unopposed.

Likewise, under votes are common in local school board elections, most likely because many voters don't have children in the school systems and simply don't care.

But when the countywide Measure K transportation initiative failed in November 2006, only 3,908 of the 105,674 who voted chose to ignore that race. In that one, no similar measure lurked to create confusion or distrust among the voters.

In Tuesday's election, Measure L was created to do just that. County supervisors intended to confound the voters.

And, by golly, they nearly got their way -- enough to alienate more than 5,500 voters from each measure and to confuse who knows how many more who voted.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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