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Battle brews over ballot language for PDH measure

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

    Plumas District Hospital filed two resolutions with the county clerk’s office Thursday, April 15, calling for a special election in which voters will decide whether to cap the hospital tax at $50 per $100,000 assessed value.
    The resolutions, passed at the April 1 board meeting, appear to pave the way for the hospital district’s special election to be consolidated with the Nov. 2 General Election.
    According to county elections officer Kathy Williams, however, the measure that is to appear on the ballot, as stated in the PDH version, is different from that in the tax limitation initiative petition, which was signed by district voters to force the election.
    Elections Code 9311 states that the ordinance must be “submit(ted) to the voters without alteration,” Williams said.    
    Skip Alexander, one of the five men behind the initiative, said, “Why the hospital feels they can violate the (California elections) code, I don’t know. But, they will not get away with it. We’re just not going to stand for it.”
    The following are the two contrasting versions:
    1. The initiative petition: The property tax assessment rate shall not exceed $50.00 per $100,000 assessed value for all bonds sold, or to be sold, by Plumas District Hospital as authorized by ‘Measure A’ in the special election of July 22, 2008. This rate shall not increase for any bonds authorized for sale by ‘Measure A.’”
    2. Plumas District Hospital’s: “Shall Measure A, approved by 2/3 of the voters on July 10, 2008, be amended to limit assessments to repay Measure A bonds issued by the District to $50 per $100,000 of assessed property value even though such assessments may not be sufficient to upgrade the District’s hospital?”
    Williams said that if the hospital district had contacted her prior to filing, she would have let it know of the potential problem with the altered language on the ballot measure.
    When the hospital placed Measure A on the ballot in 2008, Williams said that consulting firm Traumatola contacted her in advance “to make sure it was done according to elections code.”
    PDH’s attorney Michael Colantuono is very clear on procedure in a case like this, however. He said that “initiatives can run for dozens of pages,” and that a short form of the initiative, called the “ballot label,” has to be 75 words or less. This is the summary that voters see when they vote.
    “The ballot label is always drafted by government,” said Colantuono, never by initiative proponents. This makes sense, he said, because government officials are elected and have to act in a public forum, subject to public discussion.
    In fact, the ballot label that PDH filed with the county clerk was presented at the April 1 board meeting.
    To further clarify, Colantuono explained the district is the government entity in this case, not the county clerk’s office. The county is just providing a paid service to the district by running the election at the district’s request.
    The ballot label, though, shouldn’t be confused with the law itself, Colantuono said. If the measure were to pass, the law would read exactly as the tax limitation initiative proponents drafted it.
    The county clerk’s office sent a memo to county counsel Friday, April 16, asking for a legal opinion regarding the language in the measure. His interpretation of Elections Code 9311 will determine whether or not the election can go forward at this time. Interim County Counsel Brian Morris did not have a comment at press time.

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