Is Fresno’s Measure P headed to the state Supreme Court? Local judge rules on parks tax question

A Fresno County Superior Court judge on Thursday agreed with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association that two-thirds voter approval was needed to enact the citizen-led Measure P parks sales tax on the November 2018 ballot.

Fresno Building Healthy Communities, a leader in the Yes on P campaign, argued in a lawsuit that the city unjustly required two-thirds approval and that only a simple majority was needed since Measure P was a citizen-led tax initiative instead of one proposed by the government.

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% yes votes.

But Judge Kimberly A. Gaab agreed with Howard Jarvis, which intervened in the case and sought a judgment.

In her ruling, Gaab said the California Supreme Court case that Fresno BHC used in its legal argument merely applied to the scheduling of an election, not the vote required to enact a tax. Gaab also noted that Proposition 13 and Proposition 218 both require a two-thirds vote for new taxes.

‘Victory for taxpayers’

Tim Bittle, director of legal affairs for Howard Jarvis, said the taxpayers association is delighted with Gaab’s decision.

“I think it is a victory for taxpayers because the two-thirds vote is a protection intended for taxpayers to require greater public consensus before taxes are increased,” he said.

He commended Gaab for reviewing the case independently and not relying heavily on a ruling from a Bay Area judge who heard similar cases.

Mayor Lee Brand, who campaigned against Measure P, said in a statement that Gaab’s ruling verified what he and the voters already knew.

“Measure P did not meet the two-thirds threshold and the matter should be closed,” he said in the statement. “Now, I am asking Measure P supporters to come back to the table to work with me to bring a sensible, more balanced initiative to the voters in November 2020.”

Supporters remain committed

Fresno BHC remains committed to its #Parks4All campaign, said CEO and president Sandra Celedon. The group is partnering with others on three parks projects.

Celedon said Fresno BHC is weighing its options, which include appealing Gaab’s ruling. A challenge of the two-thirds vote issue could wind up before the California Supreme Court.

“We continue to call on the city to do its job and stand up for the majority of voters who sent a clear message that they want to see meaningful investments in our parks,” she said.

Celedon was less certain about working with the mayor on a 2020 initiative. Brand lost community trust while campaigning against Measure P and after a failed search for a new police chief, she said.

“If history serves as any indication of the future, I’m not sure Mayor Brand can bring people together based on what his actions have showed in the past,” Celedon said.

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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.