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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | ELECTIONS

Long Wants Opponent to Redo Ballot Statement

August 23, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Supervisor Kathy Long asked a judge Tuesday to force her opponent in the November election to rewrite his ballot statement, contending that it contains information that is inappropriate, false or misleading.

Long said Camarillo City Councilman Mike Morgan misidentifies the amount that her vote on a controversial mental health merger cost the county. She said Morgan also implies that she is beholden to special interests, while failing to mention that he too takes money from interest groups.

"It's very clear a ballot statement is to be your qualifications--not an attack on your opponent," Long said. "I feel voters have a right to have ballot statements that are correct."

The legal challenge, filed Tuesday in Ventura County Superior Court against the county official responsible for placing the statement on the ballot, is expected to be heard this morning by Judge Henry Walsh.

Morgan's statement reads: "$35,000,000 of taxpayers' money was squandered in a failed mental health merger."

Long cited a study by county Auditor Tom Mahon that says it cost $1.57 million in legal services to construct and reverse the merger and in lost revenue from illegal billings charged by the Behavioral Health Department during the period that the merger was in effect.

The county later incurred millions of dollars in federal penalties after the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the illegal billings.

Costs associated with the merger totaled $25.5 million, according to a March county report.

A memo from the county chief administrative office calls those resultant fines "clearly independent and separate from that of the merger."

Long reversed her vote after federal officials warned supervisors that the newly formed agency was illegal under federal organizational requirements.

But Morgan said that Long's vote directly led to the ensuing fines and that her court challenge is merely an attempt to "whitewash" her vote.

"She's doing the semantic thing," Morgan said. "These losses would never happen without her vote."

Long's challenge is the latest local squabble over ballot language.

Both sides in the Measure O debate--a November initiative that seeks to transfer $260 million in tobacco settlement money to private hospitals--have filed court challenges seeking language changes in their ballot statements.

Such fights are not uncommon with initiatives. But this is the first time in memory that a candidate for Ventura County supervisor has questioned an opponent's ballot statement in court, elections chief Bruce Bradley said.

Bradley said his department has seen no ballot statement challenges of any kind since 1994, when a candidate for Thousand Oaks City Council successfully fought to stay in the race after city officials disqualified him for allegedly lying on his ballot statement.

That same year, a candidate for the county Board of Education was ordered to rewrite her statement after a court challenge.

State law allows candidates for local office to include statements of their qualifications in the pamphlet mailed to each registered voter. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that judges could not include personal attacks in their statements, a ban the court extended in 1998 to other local candidates.

But Bradley said that the line between personal views and political attacks can be hard to draw, since a candidate's opinions--not just a resume list--can be considered qualifications.

"It's a gray area, and it's one of the reasons people don't often go to court over it," he said. "You can't be sure of the outcome."

Long said that the laws are very clear and that Morgan's statement goes too far.

She alleges that Morgan's statement that he does "not accept contributions from special interest groups" is misleading.

Morgan said he received contributions from several firefighter groups and Harrison Industries, but added he accepted only small, and mostly personal, contributions and did not take money from developers.

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