Acting County Counsel Brian Morris told county supervisors at a Tuesday, April 20, board meeting that it wasn’t the county’s job to make judgments on whether or not ballot language for another entity’s election was appropriate.
Morris told the public the county simply conducted the election and had “no discretion to review or change what has been directed to be placed on the ballot by the (Plumas) hospital district.”
Supporters of a tax limitation initiative recently voiced their outrage that Plumas District Hospital didn’t use the ballot label they had provided and wrote another one instead.
Local attorney Robert Zernich, one of the five original initiative proponents, indicated the ballot language would probably end up being written by a judge.
The topic came up at the very beginning of the meeting, with attorney Michael Colantuono, representing PDH in this matter, telling the board he had discussed the issue with Morris and wanted to repeat his key points for the supervisors.
“The county’s role with respect to an initiative election in a district is pretty limited.”
“You provide the mechanics of the election, but you don’t have to provide any of the policy making, and you don’t have to provide the lawyers to defend the policy making if that policy making becomes controversial.”
The attorney said it wasn’t possible for the entire text of an initiative to appear on a ballot, which was why ballot labels were written, limited to 75 words.
“Under the Elections Code it’s the district board, the hospital district board, that’s required to write that ballot label, and should there be a controversy about it, it’s our responsibility to defend the action that we’ve taken.
“It’s not the county board’s responsibility, it’s not the county counsel’s responsibility, and to the extent that this causes the need for legal fees, they don’t have to come out of your budget, they have to come out of the district’s budget.”
He told the board he understood the supervisors had a county counsel to advise them, but his advice was “When the proponents or others come to you asking you to get involved in our election, I think the right answer for you to do is send them back to us.”
He stressed the hospital board was elected “to bear that responsibility. They have to take the heat. You’re not called to be in this particular kitchen; we are.”
He concluded, “We’re prepared to stand up to our responsibilities. We’re prepared to bear the expenses that are necessary to let the people in this community have a choice and the people will have their choice.”
At that point, local attorney Michael Jackson commented, “I’m not appearing before you as an attorney, I believe you got the right advice from the last attorney who appeared.
“I’m appearing as a taxpayer and a citizen of the area and the district, and I want you to know that I’m pretty upset about the fact we have to go through this again, just because some people didn’t get it straight the first time and lost the first time. I think you should stay out of this.”
“We won it last time. We’ll win it again. The hospital is too important for the future of the community to have it sacrificed because some people didn’t like the first vote.”
Zernich stood up next to give his opinion on the matter.
“I’m one of the five proponents of the initiative. Our position is the board cannot rewrite our initiative.”
“The Elections Code, section 9311, says the board can either except the initiative and adopt it as a resolution or put in on the ballot without change.
“They have rewritten the whole thing. Whether you get involved or not is your choice.
“More than likely we’ll have this in court in not too long, and we’ll have some judge decide what the proper language is to put on the ballot, but in any event we take a very dim view of them taking and rewriting our initiative to please themselves and try to defeat our initiative.”
PDH physician and board member Dr. Mark Satterfield responded by saying he wanted to reiterate the distinction between an initiative and a ballot label.
“These are two separate items, and if you think about any of the statewide initiatives, you’ll remember that the law is often the long piece of text that doesn’t appear necessarily on the ballot in that form.
“There’s a ballot label that indicates for the voters to select the yes or no vote.”
After all members of the public who wished to speak to the matter had their say, board chairwoman Sherrie Thrall asked Morris to comment.
Morris gave a public update and said the county received a resolution from PDH the previous Thursday, asking to consolidate the initiative election with the general election in November.
“With that they provided us the language that the Election Code requires us to place on the ballot.
“We’ll be proceeding with this just like we would when we’re requested to do any other election, doing what we’re required to do under the Election Code, unless and until a judge intervenes and gives the county some different direction.”
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