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Measure P ballot language in limbo as City Council weighs Yes on P attorney letter

Fresno voters will decide on a sales tax hike to benefit local parks on Nov. 6

Measure P is a local sales tax hike initiative that, if approved by voters, will help improve parks in Fresno.
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Measure P is a local sales tax hike initiative that, if approved by voters, will help improve parks in Fresno.

Yes on P advocates arrived at Fresno City Hall Monday afternoon hoping to leave knowing the city of Fresno would correct its error on the Measure P ballot language. Instead, they left with more questions after a special Fresno City Council meeting was canceled for lack of quorum.

“There’s a phrase: ‘Time is of the essence,’” said Paul Gibson, a Measure P donor and former owner of Guarantee Real Estate. “While there’s not an official contract here, I believe there’s a contract between our elected and appointed officials that we get the voters the correct information in a timely and effective manner. This delay, I think, flies in the face of that concept.”

The special meeting was called on Friday with one agenda item: consider for approval a contract and expenditure to print and mail correction notices to voters for the Measure P ballot language.

Measure P on the Nov. 6 ballot proposes a 3/8-cent sales tax that would generate $37.5 million annually for 30 years for Fresno parks and cultural arts.

The city clerk’s office certified a resolution from the City Council in August with the incorrect ballot language.

The Measure P question printed on Fresno ballots reads: “Shall the measure imposing a 3/8 percent sales and use tax, estimated to generate $37.5 million annually for 30 years, funding city parks and cultural arts, with independent oversight, be adopted?”

The language approved by Fresno City Council in August is more detailed, and reads: “Shall the measure imposing a 3/8 percent sales and use tax, estimated to generate $37.5 million annually for 30 years, improving park safety; improving accessibility for persons with disabilities; updating and maintaining playgrounds and restrooms; providing youth and veteran job training; improving after school, arts and recreational programs; beautifying roadways; and creating parks and trails in neighborhoods without access, with citizens oversight, be adopted?”

But Yes on P attorneys delivered a letter to the City Council Monday morning requesting two things: the city send all voters accurate ballot language by mail and the city request Fresno County to make copies of the same language to hand out to voters on election day at local precincts.

“That kind of changed the dynamic of the conversation,” District 2 Councilman Steve Brandau said Monday about the letter. “I felt that we were going to try to fix a problem today that was our problem. Now, with the introduction of that letter from the attorney … council is worried about, should we even try to make a decision without understanding the legal parameters?”

Councilman Luis Chavez, who represents District 5 in southeast Fresno, said before voting he wanted the city attorney to do a complete review of how the ballot language error occurred and how to best minimize the city’s exposure to any litigation on the issues.

“It’s better to do something right than do something fast,” he said.

Council President Esmeralda Soria said she didn’t have a problem taking immediate action on Monday. “It’s important for voters to get complete information as soon as possible,” she said. “I understand there were concerns that came up.”

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Since Monday’s meeting was canceled, the council will take up the issue during a special meeting Thursday in addition to its regular meeting. The notice for the new special meeting on Thursday lists one agenda item, a contract for up to $50,000 to print and send a ballot correction for Measure P.

Also on the council’s Thursday agenda during closed session is an evaluation of the city clerk, Yvonne Spence.

Brandau said he believes the city clerk’s office should face consequences for the mistake.

Chavez said he believes both the city and Yes on P campaign failed to review the language after it was submitted, citing a 10-day period where it could’ve been changed.

But the Yes on P campaign said it wasn’t aware of that policy, and it’s the city’s responsibility to manage a “fair and accurate election.”

“As volunteers and citizens, our coalition was not made aware that we were also needed to manage the ballot oversight process,” the Yes on P campaign said in a statement. “We collected 35,000+ signatures, urged the council to place our initiative on the ballot, they unanimously agreed, and the city council adopted the accurate and complete language for the ballot. It was not even conceivable to us that those pre-approved 75 words would not be properly relayed to the county.”

Fresno County Elections documents show the city resolution included incorrect language, but the city ordinance was correct. The public notice published by the county seeking arguments for or against the measure also included the correct language.

Brandi Orth, Fresno County’s clerk, said in an email that her office received an electronic version of the resolution the morning of Aug. 10 which contained the longer version of the language. But in the afternoon, her office received the paper version of the resolution from the city that was legally certified. The paper form of the resolution contained shorter language.

“It is not out of the ordinary for municipalities to change their mind from their original version,” she said. “My department utilized the ballot question in the legal executed, certified resolution.”

Yes on P backers worry if the city doesn’t act soon, the ballot inaccuracy could affect the outcome of the election. Early voting began Oct. 8.

Jolene Telles, a Yes on P advocate, said the city must act quickly: “Every minute, every hour, every day we use, it risks the legitimacy of the election.”

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