EMPOWERED: Proponents of a slow growth initiative protest county officials they say want a biased ballot question. Photo: Josué Monroy

In a controversial move, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors on June 25 rescinded its previous vote to put a slow growth initiative on the November ballot.

Proponents of the Empower Voters initiative say it’s an attempt by pro-development officials to thwart the democratic process. 

Around 30 supporters of the initiative rallied in front of the county administrative building Tuesday to protest board chair Angela Curro, who called for a special procedure to be enacted in order to reconsider a June 18 vote. Some held signs demanding Curro be recalled.

Andy Hsia-Coron, a local activist and a main proponent of the initiative, paced up and down the sidewalk outside the building before the June 25 meeting, waving a sign reading, “Angela is the developer’s guardian angel!”

“It’s really clear that Angela Curro is trying to put her thumb on the scale on behalf of the developers (and that) she represents the developers and not the people,” Hsia-Coron said. “And it really underscores why we need this initiative, because she and so many supervisors have represented the interests of those developers as they’ve degraded the quality of life in our county.”

The Empower Voters to Make Land Use Decisions Initiative was certified by the San Benito County Clerk-Recorder’s Elections Department on May 28 after the petition gained the minimum number of valid verified signatures. 

The initiative would amend the county’s General Plan to bring decisions on the redesignation of uses for unincorporated county lands to a vote of the people. It would also change the Commercial Regional designation of four nodes along the Highway 101 corridor.

Back in May—before the initiative was certified by the elections department—the board voted to commission a 9111 report, which would be done by an outside party to look into the potential fiscal impacts Empower Voters would have on the county if passed.

At a June 18 regular board meeting, the supervisors unanimously voted to both accept the initiative’s official certification presented by San Benito County Clerk-Recorder Francisco Diaz and to put it on the Nov. 5 ballot as is. As of that meeting, the 9111 had not been submitted.

At the June 18 meeting, the county counsel advised that no changes could be made to the specific ballot question after the board accepted the certification and put it before voters. The only way to alter the ballot question after the fact would be to make a legal challenge, according to San Benito County Counsel David A. Prentice.

The move to bring back the issue after the unanimous vote surprised many, including District 2 Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki. He was perplexed as to why it came back to the board.

“As far as changing the wording of a ballot question… this is one of the reasons why these people who are pushing the initiative are skeptical of political leaders,” Kosmiscki said before the June 25 meeting.

What’s in the wording?

The initiative’s ballot question was meant to be as clear as possible, according to Hsia-Coron. He said that the ballot question was revised by the county elections office and legal counsels of both the county and the proponents. That version reads as follows:

“Shall an initiative be adopted to amend the County General Plan to require voter approval before redesignating (changing) Agricultural, Rural or Rangeland to other uses, and to remove the Commercial Regional Designation from four Highway 101 nodes?”

Voters would then have to vote “yes” or “no” based on that question.

A version of the question that was drafted by the San Benito County Counsel’s office and submitted to the initiative’s proponents in May differed in the last phrase of text. Instead of referring to the four specific Highway 101 nodes, the last phrase would ask voters if they  wished to “remove Commercial Regional (CR) from the plan, including from all currently designated Commercial Regional (CR) lands?”

Ultimately, that version was scrapped.

Curro said during the June 25 meeting that because the 9111 impact report had not yet been completed, she was uncomfortable with a ballot question that did not take potential impacts into consideration. She reiterated that she had raised that at the previous board meeting.

“[I] did not feel I received adequate information, or that I didn’t actually express my concerns about the ballot question. And the reason why is because the 9111 report on physical impact has not been received and was not available to council when this ballot question was formed,” Curro said.

“The ballot question is the most important part of the voting process because, unfortunately, the majority of voters read only the question and the most information possible needs to be in the question. So, voters are voting on as much fact based information that they can,” she continued.

Problem of Procedure

In a rare and convoluted three-step process, Curro effectively undid the unanimous June 18 vote with the help of supervisors Mindy Sotelo and Bea Gonzales. Supervisor Dom Zanger alongside Kosmicki were the two dissenting voices throughout the process, which required a special exception to amend the board’s rules.

Kosmicki said that he was concerned with the overall transparency and even the legality of the process.

“I think we’re violating a lot of things here,” Kosmicki said.

Zanger did not see a reason for to change the ballot question at this point, after it had already been approved by the county counsel and the elections office.

“The whole thing seems off to me,” Zanger said.

Sotelo wondered where the board had “gone wrong” in the process of approving Empower Voters for the November ballot without the 9111 report’s findings.

Diaz said in an email to the Free Lance that 9111 reports have typically been received on the day of or before an initiative’s certification. But the board does not have to wait for that report to come out for it to recognize the certification and approve an initiative for the ballot. Essentially, Curro’s move is to have a “do-over” of that action after the report is released.

The board voted 3-2 at the June 25 meeting to annul its previous decision. They will revisit the matter on or after July 23 when the 9111 report is slated to be presented to the board.

A legal representative for the proponents of Empower Voters said that this decision will shorten the timeline for the entire process of getting the initiative back on the ballot

“Their vote to reconsider actually eliminated entirely their June 18 action, so now they have no longer done anything in response to being presented with the certification,” said Beverly Grossman Palmer, a partner with Strumwasser & Woocher.

The deadline for the board to take action on the initiative in time to place it on the ballot is Aug. 9. Grossman Palmer said that since the board has now pushed back the presentation of the 9111 report to July 23, and will ostensibly repeat the action of approving for the ballot on that day or at a later date, the timeline will be condensed.

“I do think that it’s problematic that they don’t have a plan now to respond in any way to the measure until more than 30 days from the date that the certification was presented to them, because the code gives us those deadlines for a reason… so that was just a very last minute change that no one had an opportunity to even comment on (during the June 25 meeting),” Grossman Palmer said.

Curro defended her proposal after a slew of public comments lambasted her at the meeting. 

“Right now, there are 11 state propositions and referendums that have been qualified for the ballot for November. And out of those, 10 have the fiscal impact to the state and the community in the ballot question. Why is it that that consideration cannot be brought to our voters? And if you think I have an agenda with developers, you don’t know me very well. My voting record has been very much about ensuring that our community is not taken advantage of,” Curro said.

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