Faced with questions on the legality of a mailer touting the CenterLine project, Orange County transportation officials decided Monday not to send a second round of promotional brochures to Irvine voters, who will cast ballots on the controversial light-rail system in June.
The decision comes less than a week after the Orange County Transportation Authority sent glossy pamphlets about its proposed 11.4-mile project through Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. About 39,000 pieces were mailed to Irvine registered voters at a cost of about $28,000.
Critics of the brochures contended Wednesday that OCTA violated state laws barring the use of public funds to influence the outcome of ballot measures. On June 3, Irvine voters will decide whether CenterLine should be built in that city. Absentee balloting begins May 5.
Arthur T. Leahy, OCTA's chief executive officer, announced the change after a contentious meeting, during which board members heard more than an hour of public testimony, much of it against CenterLine. Of 34 speakers, 15 favored the proposal and 19 criticized it. Opponents also attacked the mailer, calling it a blatant attempt to influence the Irvine election.
Some disputed the mailer's claims that CenterLine will relieve traffic congestion and reduce air pollution -- two goals questioned by the 1999 Orange County Grand Jury and an earlier environmental impact report for a previous 28-mile version of the system.
"The CenterLine brochure purports to be informational, but it is lopsided in favor of the project and meant to sway the vote," said Jack Mallinckrodt, an activist who heads Drivers for Highway Safety.
Leahy said he canceled the second mailing after consulting with OCTA general counsel Ken Smart, who originally approved the brochure despite the upcoming Irvine election. However, Leahy said Monday that OCTA did nothing wrong in sending the first mailer.
"The mailings and outreach are required for the project. Some of the planning was done in January," Leahy told the board. "We thought we were proceeding on a sound legal basis."
Mike Ward, an OCTA board member and Irvine councilman, said the decision to halt the second mailer was more political than legal, because the authority did not want to create "ill will" among Irvine voters.
OCTA plans to proceed with community meetings for CenterLine and additional mailings in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. Some critics, however, called the cancellation an indication that the first mailing violated the law.
"If they repeat it, they would probably lose a lawsuit," said John Kleinpeter, head of Fund Alternatives Instead of Rail Transit, an anti-CenterLine group based in Irvine that worked to put the issue before city voters.
The California Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that a government entity cannot use public resources to promote or oppose the qualification or the passage of a ballot measure. In Stanson vs. Mott, the court ruled that advocacy could be defined by the "style, tenor and timing" of a government-paid message.
After the barrage of public testimony, board members voted 7 to 4 to trim CenterLine's proposed budget from $1.5 billion to $1.4 billion and advance the completion date to 2009 from 2011. Speeding up the project, Leahy said, would save about $100 million.
Supervisors Chris Norby and Bill Campbell, who sit on the OCTA board, are against the project and opposed the changes. Their board colleagues, Cathryn De Young and Shirley McCracken, also voted no, saying that decisions on CenterLine should be delayed until after the Irvine election.