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Long Beach Mailers on Ballot Measure Barred

Courts: Ruling backs activist whose proposal to cut utility tax rate was targeted by city materials. Judge says officials must remain neutral.

October 25, 2000|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles judge Tuesday prohibited Long Beach officials from sending mailers at government expense about a local ballot measure that would halve the city's utility tax rate over the next five years.

Saying the city should remain neutral, Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs ruled in favor of anti-tax crusader Norm Ryan, whose efforts qualified the controversial initiative, known as Measure J, for the November ballot.

"The judge made the right decision," Ryan said. "I only hope we can tag these officials with personal liability for expending public funds. This is a major black eye for the city."

The Long Beach City Council and other officials have opposed Ryan's measure, saying it eventually would cost the city $30 million a year in revenue and affect police and fire services.

This month, city officials inserted four-page pamphlets into city utility bills that detailed the history of the utility tax, highlighted municipal programs supported by it and urged citizens to vote.

It also mentioned Measure I, the City Council's version of utility tax relief, which offers to reduce the tax rate by 25% over the next five years. The brochures were sent to more than 170,000 municipal customers at a cost of about $6,000.

Officials had planned to send a second round of mailers later this week, but Ryan sued Monday, alleging that the pamphlets were an attempt to improperly influence voters at taxpayer expense.

Janavs issued a temporary restraining order and set another court date for Nov. 13. In her ruling, she described the Long Beach mailers as "rah, rah" pieces that were neither fair nor balanced presentations of the issues.

Under state law, city council members and city officials can express their views on political matters, but they cannot spend municipal funds to directly or indirectly influence the outcome of an election.

The city has defended the mailings as neutral, educational pieces about the utility tax, which is 10% of all charges for water, gas, electricity and phone service. It raises about $60 million a year in revenue.

After Ryan filed suit, however, city officials said they revised the first mailer, removing language stating that the tax helped the city and provided Long Beach with an advantage.

The new mailing, which is barred by Janavs' ruling, would have included a copy of the ballot measure, arguments for and against the initiative, and an analysis of the proposed tax cut by the Long Beach city attorney's office.

"Our position was the revised mailers met the standard," said City Atty. Robert Shannon. "They were informational and designed to better inform the public about the proposal. We disagree with the ruling, but we intend to abide by it."

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