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Sample Ballot Wording on Tobacco Vote Called Biased

Court: Backers of measure file suit in a bid to force county to rewrite the statements. At stake is control of $260 million in settlement funds.


Backers of a November measure that would transfer $260 million in tobacco money from local government are asking a court to force the county to rewrite sample ballot statements, contending those already drafted are inaccurate and biased.

Lawyers for Community Memorial Hospital say the language set by county counsel in its analysis and ballot label, and by the auditor in his fiscal impact report, could unfairly sway voters to cast ballots against Measure O, which is backed by Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura and seven other hospitals.

"I've seen hundreds of [sample ballots] over the years, but never quite like this," said James Parrinello, an attorney representing the hospital. "They have to be impartial, and we don't think they're playing by that rule."

The lengthy lawsuit alleges the county used biased or argumentative wording, added irrelevant information or misrepresented facts.

County officials stood by the impartiality of the reports, which are to be included in booklets sent to voters, and said the hospitals are attempting to bombard the county with lawsuits.

"I think it's harassment and doesn't provide substantive complaints," said William Moritz, assistant county counsel. "I think they're grasping at straws."

The 21-page lawsuit contends, among other complaints, that the auditor's fiscal impact statement suggests the county would require major budget cuts if Measure O passes. The measure's backers say that is untrue.

"It's an attempt to scare voters," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also contends a claim that the Board of Supervisors has "adopted a plan . . . for allocating this funding source to health-related needs" is false because the board "has made no binding commitments."

Ventura County would have to cut $18.4 million from its next budget if voters approve Measure O, according to the fiscal impact statement prepared by Auditor Tom Mahon.

Community Memorial says it proposed the initiative to ensure the tobacco settlement money is spent on health care and that it does not trust the Board of Supervisors to do so.

The county countered by releasing a report outlining possible expenditures on health care and announcing a series of public meetings to begin in September to discuss the funding.

The lawsuit further questions the objectivity of the so-called impartial analysis, objecting to a variety of word choices, such as "private" in referring to the nonprofit hospitals, and in saying the measure withholds the funds from the county "forever," when the measure "can be amended by vote of the people at any time."

Supervisor Frank Schillo said the hospital is trying to confuse voters with its lawsuit and campaign.

"They hate the truth and don't want to miss any opportunity to cloud the picture," he said. "The money is in our budget. It is within our power to spend it. We're saying the money they're planning on taking away is really going to damage the county."

"Their M.O. has always been to challenge everything and challenge it twice," Schillo said. "They're spending more money that they don't have."

Kathryn Woodburn, the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the county, is campaign coordinator of the Citizens Committee to Safeguard the Tobacco Settlement for Healthcare, a group formed to lobby for the initiative.

Woodburn is a volunteer at Community Memorial and married to a surgeon there.

"Now that we're headed toward the ballot, we're beginning to campaign," said Mark Barnhill, a spokesman for the hospital.

"She's [Woodburn] an important volunteer in the hospital community and it's appropriate for her to take the lead."

A Ventura County Superior Court judge is expected to set a date for a hearing this morning. The final wording for the ballot must be completed before Aug. 29 so that booklets can be printed beginning Sept. 1, according to county election chief Bruce Bradley.

This lawsuit follows two others that stemmed from the county's initial refusal to put the measure on the ballot, calling it illegal. A judge ruled last month that while he had "grave doubts," the measure belongs on the November ballot.

Lawyers for Community Memorial haven't ruled out further lawsuits down the line, and in the past have hinted at the possibility of legal action over what they consider to be campaigning against the measure on the part of elected officials, who are legally restrained from doing so.

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