By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District said Friday it is requiring a tax repeal effort to attach an agency-written statement to its petitions, despite state officials’ warning that SMART’s action oversteps its authority.
The 167-word title and summary is meant to be an unbiased view of the intentions of the RepealSMART initiative, which would repeal the 2008 tax measure approving a quarter-percent sales tax increase to fund a SMART commute train.
“Our position is we need to make sure the voters have a clear and unbiased picture of what they are signing,” said SMART Chairwoman Valerie Brown. “That is what we have provided.”
SMART directors approved an ordinance on Wednesday that requires the statement, as well as setting SMART’s clerk of the board as the election official, despite a state opinion it exceeded their authority.
The ordinance doesn’t address the issue of how many signatures will be required, 15,000 or 30,000, to qualify the issue for the ballot. And it honors an estimated 5,000 signatures already collected.
The secretary of state’s chief counsel, Lowell Finley, in a letter Monday advised SMART that the initiative election process is already covered by state election code and SMART is not authorized to write its own election ordinance.
“We are crystal clear the ordinance does not meet state law,” said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said Friday.
Winger said the state often offers an opinion in a local election and hopes the parties will sort it out.
“We are hoping the local parties will work this out, but we will see what we have to do next,” Winger said. “This is a fluid situation and it is new. Attorneys on both sides continue to discuss and debate. We hope they will agree that the state constitution trumps the local ordinance.”
Brown said it is SMART’s contention that the law does not address a situation like SMART, where the board are elected officials from the cities and counties, but are not elected specifically to sit on the SMART board.
“We are different than a water district, a school board, a JPA (joint powers agreement). There aren’t very many like ours and the law does not clarify where we fall in that law,” Brown said.
RepealSMART co-chairman Clay Mitchell of Windsor said his group hasn’t decided yet whether to adhere to the ordinance or not.
“We have not decided on a course of action,” Mitchell said. He added the group has “a concern or two about the wording” and will bring them up with Sheryl Bratton, who is a Sonoma County Assistant County Counsel and SMART’s legal counsel.
The statement was drafted by Bratton. The ordinance was written by attorney Michael Colantuono, who was hired by SMART hired as a special counsel.
Colantuono contends that state election code does not address an initiative in a district such as SMART, which straddles two counties.
The 167-word statement says that the Sonoma-Marin rail agency was formed by a 2002 Assembly bill, is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax passed by voters in both counties in 2008, and because of the slowing economy, is now building the commute rail line in phases, beginning with an initial line between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.
The statement also says the proposed measure would repeal the sales tax and needs a simple majority vote to succeed.
The statement is required to be attached to the petition beginning Wednesday, according to the ordinance.
However, the ordinance doesn’t disqualify the previously gathered signatures, estimated by opponents at about 5,000, that have already been obtained since opponents began circulating the petition in mid-September.
SMART’s critics contend that the commute train is inadequately funded, the Santa Rosa-San Rafael line is not what was promised voters and ridership would not be sufficient to reduce traffic and emissions.
SMART’S PETITION LANGUAGE
REPEAL OF QUARTER-CENT SALES TAX FOR SMART TRAIN
The California Legislature created the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District (SMART) in 2002, under Assembly Bill 2224, to provide passenger rail service to Marin and Sonoma Counties. To fund passenger train service, SMART proposed a quarter-cent ($.0025 tax on every $1.00 taxable item) transactions and use (or sales) tax to the voters in 2008. The voters approved this proposal, which appeared on the ballot as “Measure Q,” by more than the two-thirds majority required. Since 2008, the slowing economy has resulted in a lower amount of tax revenue from the sales tax than was anticipated. As a result, the Board of Directors of SMART determined in 2010 to build the SMART train in phases, with the first phase providing passenger rail service between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.
The proposed measure would entirely repeal the quarter-cent sales tax passed by the voters in 2008 that is used to fund passenger rail service in Sonoma and Marin counties. It requires a simple majority vote for approval.