A Hollister resident has filed a lawsuit against San Benito County, claiming that the ballot question for Measure N in the November election “brazenly misleads voters.”
County officials, meanwhile, question the timing of the filing, saying it could jeopardize the county’s ability to send ballots within the time frame required by election code.
The lawsuit was filed in the California Superior Court on Aug. 27 by Frank Barragan, the chair of the group Concerned Citizens of San Benito County.
Measure N, if approved by voters in November, would create a master plan for the 2,777-acre Strada Verde Innovation Park, a proposal that consists of automotive testing facilities, an e-commerce center, a park and other features located between highways 25 and 101.
The following question will be asked of voters:
“Shall an initiative enacting the ‘Strada Verde Innovation Park Specific Plan,’ and making County General Plan and Code Amendments, for approximately 2,777 acres in northwest San Benito County, allowing various uses (including Research/Development, Automotive Testing/Tracks, Distribution, Offices, Business/Professional Services Commercial, Light Industrial, Hospitality, Retail, and Public/Private Services) and requiring the creation of a 209.5 acre Pajaro River Park and preservation of 561.7 acres exclusively for agriculture be adopted?”
Barragan, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 San Benito County Supervisor seat in March, said he filed the lawsuit “out of frustration.”
“The ballot question brazenly misleads voters with inaccurate and incomplete information,” he said. “It’s just the latest example of the ongoing efforts of some in county government to put their heavy fingers on the scale to get the Strada Verde project approved.”
The lawsuit claims that while the question states the initiative will preserve more than 561 acres of agricultural land, it does not mention that it will rezone more than 2,000 acres of agricultural land to permit a wide variety of development uses.
It also omits that the proposed development would be within a “hazardous buffer zone” adjacent to a facility that stores agricultural fumigants, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, demanding a correction, goes on to state that the language appears to “promote” the project, rather than using a neutral description of the proposal.
“When voters make important ballot decisions, they should be given fair, unbiased and balanced information,” Barragan said. “The government review process of Strada Verde has done just the opposite, with critical information consistently withheld or hidden until the last minute.”
A memorandum filed on Aug. 27 by County Clerk Joe Paul Gonzalez and the San Benito County Counsel stated that California Elections Code requires that ballots must be sent to military and overseas voters between 45-60 days before an election, which is Sept. 4-19.
Changes in election materials could take “at least four days” to make, according to the memorandum, and place San Benito County at the end of the printer’s queue.
“Since our county is a smaller county, if we lose our reservation date, we could have to wait for the printing and mailing runs of the larger counties’ ballot materials to finish before the printer could then work on our ballot materials,” Gonzalez wrote.
According to the memorandum, a voter can seek an amendment to a ballot question per election code, but only if they provide “clear and convincing proof” that it contains false information. Such writ of mandate must not “substantially interfere with the printing and distribution of the state voter information guide as required by law,” the memorandum stated.
The memorandum noted that Barragan’s filing should be denied as “untimely,” saying that he “failed to exhaust administrative remedies by not objecting to the ballot question prior to its adoption.”
“The Petitioner had from July 21, 2020 to file a writ of mandate challenge … of the ballot label approved by the Board of Supervisors, but only did so at the 11th hour on August 27, 2020,” the memorandum stated.
County Counsel Barbara Thompson said if the court sets a hearing for next week, the county will file further opposition addressing the issues raised in the lawsuit.