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Right Move, Wrong Reason

May 04, 2003

This much is good: The Orange County Transportation Authority decided against sending out another mailer touting CenterLine right before Irvine residents start voting on the proposed rail project. OCTA was showered with complaints from opponents about the first rosily worded brochure and decided not to chance a backlash among Irvine voters. If only the board and its top staff had taken to heart the more important lesson that these mailers are wrongheaded and quite possibly illegal.

The California Supreme Court made it clear in 1976 that governments can't use taxpayer money to sway taxpayer votes. Government exists to serve the public will after elections, not to influence the elections. That decision had a profound effect in Orange County when supervisors planned to put a commercial airport at El Toro.

Airport opponents successfully sued in 2001 to block supervisors from spending $8 million on a so-called Just the Facts campaign about their plans. Voters could have bet that the "facts" would have been a one-sided campaign promoting the benefits of a large airport.

Likewise, OCTA sent out "informational" mailers two weeks ago in Irvine, where absentee balloting starts Monday on the proposed stretch of CenterLine that would run from UC Irvine to John Wayne Airport before continuing on to Santa Ana. Voters go to the polls June 3.

Wouldn't you know, the "information" included nothing about opponents' concerns or the current $1.4-billion price tag. OCTA instead invited residents to open houses and offered glowing snippets on a "modern light rail that will offer tremendous benefits to the residents of Irvine" and "protect neighborhoods from noise."

OCTA Chief Executive Arthur T. Leahy isn't conceding that the agency made any mistakes with the mailer. OCTA was just informing the public, as the law requires, he said.

In fairness, OCTA approved spending $28,000 for the mailers before the Irvine City Council's February decision to place two measures on the ballot so voters could decide whether they wanted the rail line. But the board should have pulled the mailers back once the vote was in the offing.

CenterLine is a well-intentioned project that could begin to crack the gridlock predicted for many Orange County roads -- or not. There are valid arguments and concerns on both sides. Two county grand juries reached dramatically different conclusions about the proposed rail line.

To make intelligent decisions about CenterLine, Irvine residents need more, and more balanced, information about the light-rail proposal, not less of it. If OCTA were truly concerned about providing residents the full range of facts, it would have provided it.

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