Half Moon Bay voters will again consider another citizen-initiated Measure F in the June election and, as in years past, it’s proving to be just as controversial.
A group of residents proposed the Taxpayer Protection Act, which would require a supermajority of the council to approve certain types of financing, and specifically lease revenue bonds, to fund city projects.
Proponents argue it raises the bar by placing additional checks on officials, while opponents contend it would allow a minority to control the council. Already, the divisive proposal has split the council, both groups are at odds over what the measure would do exactly, and it’s landed the sponsor and opponents in court.
As written, a supermajority of the entire council would require a minimum of four councilmembers if all five are present, or the entire council if one is absent, to approve certain types of loans, said Assistant City Attorney Reed Gallogly.
Proponents contend elected officials are reckless with city funds, a similar assertion during the Main Street bridge debacle that led to another citizens initiative passed in June 2014, coincidentally also titled Measure F. Now, supporters are focused on lease revenue bonds, which can incur high interest costs.
Opponents, including several current and past councilmembers, argue the measure obscures democracy by over-empowering a vocal minority. They fear community projects such as infrastructure repairs, street improvements and many other bond-funded enhancements could be stalled.
Mayor Rick Kowalczyk noted legal counsel advised Measure F is so broad it could require nearly all forms of non-voter approved financing to pass the burdensomely steep threshold of a supermajority.
“Measure F is simply the means to provide another tool to the few raucous individuals who continually try to block improvements in Half Moon Bay,” Kowalczyk said in an email. “There is no doubt that the ballot measure is an attempt to invoke an aggressive restriction that will only harm the people in the community that want parks, the new library, and other projects to continue to move forward.”
The controversial measure landed the advocates and opponents in court last week as David Eblovi, who unsuccessfully ran for a council seat in 2014, sought to dismiss his foe’s ballot arguments. Eblovi is the main backer of Measure F.
Eblovi contends the measure is “about a method of financing that tries to avoid voter approval, that can issue unlimited amounts of debt, and that has the potential to bring down the city,” he wrote in an email. “I think the measure is a reasonable and common-sense check on power that most people will favor.”
Supporters contend it would only apply to lease-revenue bonds and pointed to the council agreeing 4-1 to take out this form of financing to fund Half Moon Bay’s new library — a $22 million collaboration for which the county agreed to pay for half.
But the city no longer plans to use lease revenue bonds as the Board of Supervisors agreed to loan it the money instead.
Yet that hasn’t satisfied Measure F proponents’ concerns and they argue Half Moon Bay needs a higher threshold for certain financing decisions.
Vice Mayor Deborah Ruddock, who returned to the council along with newcomer Deborah Penrose during the November 2014 election — both cited the Main Street Bridge as a reason to run — signed a ballot argument favoring the proposal.
Last year, Ruddock voted against applying to use lease revenue bonds for the library.
“I believe the city needs to be cautious when it comes to borrowing and spending in excess of revenue generated from taxes and fees. I believe the act simply raises the bar a bit for council approval of significant debt without voter consent,” Ruddock wrote in an email, adding she believes it only applies to riskier lease revenue bonds. “Now as Election Day approaches, opponents fearing for their pet projects and high-priced bond lawyers are claiming the act is overly broad. Let’s calm down and let the voters decide, and if the act is later challenged successfully on these grounds, the council will address the issue.”
But Gallogly noted expert consultants who focus on municipal bonds said the ballot language is so broad it could be applied to nearly any type of financing other than general obligation bonds or what’s approved by the voters. In a stringent reading of the measure, Gallogly noted even things like leasing a city vehicle, seeking to participate in low-interest state revolving loan funds, or essentially any time it borrows money without voter approval, could qualify.
“With a four-fifths supermajority vote required, it can get difficult to get things done,” Gallogly said, adding if one councilmember is absent then all must approve to satisfy the supermajority threshold as written. “I’m not aware of any other Bay Area cities that have put such a requirement in place.”
Eblovi disagreed that it was broad enough to cover other types of funding calling the argument “utter hogwash.”
About 765 valid signatures put the measure on the ballot and Eblovi contends it would protect against the potential financial disaster lease revenue bonds pose and, in his ballot statements, stated the city has a history of poorly managing its finances or major projects.
Their arguments are reminiscent of the Main Street Bridge debate when a citizens’ 2014 initiative, also titled Measure F, won against a competing city initiative. Now the council is prevented from demolishing the 100-year-old structure without returning to the voters.
New Measure F supporters include previous bridge advocates such as Harvey Rarback, who dropped out of the 2014 council race and sits on the Coastside Fire Protection District board.
Eblovi appeared in court last week to ask a county judge to dismiss opponents’ ballot arguments. He named Measure F opponents Kowalczyk as well as former councilmembers Naomi Patridge and Allan Alifano, who lost re-election in 2014, as respondents for signing the ballot arguments. Ultimately, the judge ruled against Eblovi as he couldn’t prove any inaccuracies and such arguments are traditionally protected as free speech, said Jim Sutton, a lawyer hired by Alifano.
Kowalczyk said the measure is sponsored by known critics of the city who’ve long questioned community projects like the new skate park, Mac Dutra Plaza and the library.
“The proponents of Measure F worked hard to stop all these projects,” Kowalczyk said, “and with the added weapon of Measure F will be able to wreak havoc on the future needs of the city.”