It may be the least-known issue on Fresno County's ballot this November, and it's not likely to get much more attention. Those for it and those against are doing nothing to get the word out.
Measure O, authored by Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, would make it easier for the county government to turn over public-sector work to private contractors.
Under the measure, the five-member Board of Supervisors could privatize government services with three votes instead of the four now required.
The change is significant: it would have made a difference in recent efforts to outsource county security and defense attorneys and could very well tip the balance in future outsourcing decisions.
Supporters say privatization saves the county money. Opponents say it leaves the county without control of critical services.
But neither side is putting its money where its mouth is, and with little more than a month before the Nov. 6 election, no organized campaigning has taken place.
"What's the point of having the debate if you're not willing to follow through and get the message out?" said David Schecter, associate professor of political science at Fresno State. "It's a little ridiculous to go full bore and put something on the ballot, but then not commit when the time comes."
The default move for voters who aren't familiar with a ballot initiative or don't understand it, Schecter said, is to check "no," which means longer odds for the county's rather obtuse privatization measure.
"People don't read the crazy ones to themselves and say, 'OK, yes.' They get scared away usually," he said.
Poochigian expects voters to educate themselves on Measure O when the ballot guides are mailed, starting next week. She thinks most will look favorably upon the measure as a way for the county to downsize government and reduce costs.
"Here's a chance for voters to make a big difference in the way we do business here in Fresno County," she said.
Poochigian said she thought about organizing a group to campaign for the measure but hasn't had the time.
She joined her board's conservative majority last month in getting the measure on the ballot. Supervisors Judy Case and Phil Larson voted in support. Supervisors Susan Anderson and Henry Perea voted against pursuing the initiative.
In February of last year, the board was similarly split when the privatization debate came to a head.
After soliciting bids from contractors to manage county security and take over the Public Defender's Office, the board didn't move forward because members knew that the four votes weren't in place.
Measure O overturns the current four-vote requirement. That threshold was established by voters in 1976.
Labor groups were supportive of the four-vote effort then and are strongly opposed to changing it now, though they haven't committed any money to fight Measure O.
"There are certain things that people want to make sure government can do only with a supermajority: raise taxes and privatize," said Tom Abshere, director of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
Once you go forward, he said, it's hard to go back.
And too often, Abshere added, the county doesn't end up saving money through privatization.
A Bee review of last year's bids from private companies showed that Fresno County could have saved money in the short run but those savings were less certain over the long haul.
Obviously, whether the county would stand to gain from future privatization efforts would be determined by the terms the county could ink with private contractors. While contractors have the advantage of not having to pay high-priced county pensions and other expenses, they have to factor in a profit.
Al Smith, president of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and supporter of Measure O, suggested that interest in the initiative might be low because the board's political makeup is changing.
Next year, Anderson will be replaced by the more conservative Andreas Borgeas, who could provide the fourth vote needed for outsourcing.
"I think we've got a fairly business-friendly board [next year]," he said, "and that's exciting for us."
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