A Fresno group is taking the city to court. They’ve filed a lawsuit over Measure P

Fresno Building Healthy Communities filed a lawsuit Friday morning against the city of Fresno, a day after the City Council did not take action to approve Measure P, a parks sales tax on the November ballot.

Fresno BHC contends in its lawsuit that the city is unjustly requiring a two-thirds majority vote approval for Measure P, which received 52 percent voter approval.

BHC argues since Measure P was a citizen-led initiative, it doesn’t require the same approval as a government-proposed tax.

“We cannot let the city of Fresno disregard the voices of residents and young people who have led the #Parks4All movement for the last several years,” said Sandra Celedon, president and chief executive officer for Fresno Building Healthy Communities.

“The law is clear, citizen-led initiatives, like Measure P, require a simple majority and a majority of Fresnans support more and better parks.”

Measure P on the Nov. 6 ballot proposed a 3/8-cent sales tax that would’ve generated $37.5 million annually for 30 years for Fresno parks and cultural arts. Measure P received about 52 percent “yes” votes.

Fresno BHC in 2015 launched its #Parks4All campaign, and in summer 2018 helped gather more than 12,000 signatures to qualify Measure P for the ballot. Measure P earned support from a broad coalition group and politicians of all backgrounds, including former mayors Ashley Swearengin and Alan Autry and Larry Powell, the former Fresno County schools superintendent.

The No on P campaign enlisted political heavyweights including Mayor Lee Brand, Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Fire Chief Kerri Donis, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, and both the police and fire unions.

The City Council on Thursday directed the city attorney’s office to file a declaratory relief, asking a Fresno County Superior Court judge to decide.

“We believe this is the best course of action and in the best interests of all Fresno residents to obtain clarity on the election matter,” said Miguel Arias, the District 3 councilman.

The requirement has been called into question after the California Supreme Court in 2017 ruled in a case against the city of Upland that taxes imposed by citizens aren’t in the same category as taxes imposed by local governments. The court ruling raises the question whether taxes imposed by citizens must face a super majority vote threshold at 66.7 percent.

“We received a copy of the lawsuit this morning and I am aware of the council’s request for clarification from the court on Measure P,” Brand said. “The authors and proponents of Measure P told voters it would take a two-thirds vote to adopt the tax. Now they want a court to change the rules after the election and say that a bare majority outweighs the California Constitution, as modified by Proposition 218, which was passed by the voters in 54 of 58 counties in the state in 1996.”

Brand added, “I also believe this action will make it much more difficult to unify the community in support of a balanced measure that not only seeks to remedy our deficiencies in parks, but also in public safety and many other areas where the city does not have sufficient resources to provide the necessary services our residents need and deserve. It may take three years or longer for this case to be finally settled by the California Supreme Court and in the meantime, the people of Fresno will suffer. I will work to make sure that our residents don’t have to.”

Celedon called the mayor hypocritical, saying the lack of quality parks in the city causes community suffering.

“We find it hypocritical that our Mayor will say he will work to prevent the community from suffering as a result of a lack of quality parks in our community. Our wish is he would have had this sentiment before enlisting the police chief, fire chief, and Darius Assemi of Granville Homes, to ardently oppose Measure P,” she said. “In fact, Fresno Building Healthy Communities has a demonstrated record of listening to community members and young people and bringing the community together to address their concerns, which is why we are now standing up for democracy.”

In a newsletter sent to supporters last week, the Yes on P campaign expressed support for BHC’s legal fight.

“Our campaign has not taken its own legal action at this time, but we understand the importance of seeking clarification from the courts on citizen-led ballot initiatives and encourage all Measure P supporters to stay informed on this legal challenge,” it said.

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix

Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.