Political Notebook

Patients at this mental hospital may have doomed a city’s sales tax measure

Entrance to the Administration Building at Coalinga State Hospital in 2006.
Entrance to the Administration Building at Coalinga State Hospital in 2006. Fresno Bee file

Update: The initial version of this story described one of Jeff Gambord’s criminal convictions as “sexual battery involving a child younger than 14,” which was what was listed on the state’s sex offender registry. Gambord disputed this, and the charge on the registry was amended to show the crime involved an adult victim. The story has been updated to reflect the registry’s change.

Original:

A tightly contested ballot measure seeking to impose a 1-cent sales tax on Coalinga residents apparently failed by just 33 votes, and patients at Coalinga State Hospital are taking credit for helping to defeat it.

A current patient, a former patient who now represents the patients as part of an informal political lobbying group, and Coalinga Mayor Nathan Vosburg have confirmed that patients shared their intentions to oppose the sales tax, which was needed to save 23 city jobs, unless the city could convince them otherwise. When that didn’t happen, the patients apparently doomed the measure, which failed 578 votes to 545 according to unofficial totals provided by the Fresno County Elections Office.

County Clerk Brandi Orth confirmed that there are 304 active voters registered at the hospital, which houses nearly 1,000 sexually violent predators and a few hundred other mentally disordered prisoners. These patients all vote by mail, and the hospital is treated as a fifth voting precinct in Coalinga.

Orth explained that years ago, the city annexed the state-owned hospital. Smaller cities often do this to increase population. In doing so, it gave those legally able to vote the right to participate in local elections.

State prison inmates are not allowed to vote in California, but those on probation or under post-release supervision can. These changes were made last year through Assembly Bill 2466.

The new law states that a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old and living in California can vote provided they are not currently serving a felony sentence in a state or federal prison, on parole or deemed mentally unfit to vote by the courts.

33 votesThe apparent margin of defeat for Coalinga’s Measure C

Coalinga State Hospital houses patients who may have completed their imposed sentences but remain in state custody while awaiting new housing because they are deemed a threat to the public as sexually violent predators. These patients are in a sort of limbo, having had many of their rights restored, but not their freedom.

Jeff Gambord is one such patient. According to the state sex offender registry, he was convicted of rape and sexual battery in the 1980s and granted release in 2002. However, he’s been kept in the hospital for treatment of bipolar disorder and other mental issues.

Gambord told The Bee shortly after the Nov. 7 election that he and fellow patients had opposed the tax for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it would force them to pay a couple pennies extra for a cheeseburger in the hospital cafeteria. He added that the tax would do little to help the prisoners in return for increased costs.

On Tuesday, Mayor Vosburg shared an email conversation between City Manager Marissa Trejo and two representatives of a group known as Detainee-Americans for Civic Equality, commonly referred to as DACE.

On Oct. 10, just about a month before the election, the group sent the Coalinga mayor a letter. It asked the city to explain to the group’s “resident voters” how the tax initiative would benefit them. It noted that the vote would likely be very close, and the “300-400” registered voters at the hospital could be instrumental in determining its fate.

$557,000The city of Coalinga’s current budget deficit

That letter was forwarded to Trejo, who responded with an explanation of how the tax, known as Measure C, came to exist and what it would do. The explanation focused on city jobs that would have to go due to a $557,000 budget deficit. Trejo also noted that other options, such as cutting city employee pay, had been explored but would not cover the considerable deficit for the city of about 20,000.

Christian R. Williams, listed in his letter to the city as the steering coordinator for DACE, told Trejo in a follow-up email that her response did not sufficiently address the concerns of the patients, and as such they would oppose the proposed sales tax increase. He noted a list of specific patient “needs” that the city apparently had no interest in addressing, such as a shuttle service to and from the hospital for visitors staying in Coalinga.

Williams also said that taxi companies operating within the city refuse to take passengers to the hospital. His group would also like the city to donate land as the site for a visitor’s center for family members who come to see patients.

Because the city was apparently not willing to address the patients’ concerns, Williams said, DACE would recommend a “no” vote.

Robert S. Turner, a former patient and a registered sex offender currently living in Fresno, is the community liaison for DACE. He spent six years in Coalinga State Hospital and six more in Atascadero State Hospital after a conviction for lewd acts with a child under 14.

Turner said the group does not officially take credit for the measure’s defeat, noting that the city could have done more to increase voter turnout. But he believes that public misconceptions about sex offenders keep politicians from taking the patients seriously.

His group was formed in 2010 to encourage eligible patients to register as voters and participate, he said. The group is made up of a board of five current and former patients who meet with the several hundred registered voters at the hospital weekly to discuss issues and make recommendations.

“Our bloc is large, informed and active,” Turner said.

The group does not know exactly how many patients followed its recommendations, Turner said. Precinct-by-precinct results will not be available until after the election is certified, which could happen by Friday.

I think this sends the wrong message to the people of Coalinga and to the people of California.

Coalinga Mayor Nathan Vosburg

Trejo, the Coalinga city manager, clarified Tuesday that the city did not try to promote the tax to any particular group or person. Its role was simply to provide information to the public. If DACE was looking for someone to come out in favor of the tax, she added, the group should have contacted one of Measure C’s public supporters, such as the local police officers or firefighters unions.

Vosburg, the mayor, said the vote signaled the level of public safety services the people of Coalinga were willing to pay for: Either raising taxes to maintain the current level of services, or losing some services to match the revenues the city receives.

“The people have spoken, and I stand behind the will of the people,” Vosburg said.

He continued: “However, I do not think that the voters of Coalinga are going to be happy to know that patients at the Coalinga State Hospital may have swayed this vote in an attempt to bring the city to spend funds during a budget crisis on projects like taxi services.”

The Coalinga City Council is proposing using its closed Claremont Custody Center, located on the edge of town, as a marijuana oil production center.

The mayor added that it was “interesting” that DACE encouraged a “no” vote for patients who rely on city ambulance services that may now be reduced in the impending budget cuts.

Vosburg said that he and others in the city are angry because the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to increase voting rights for felons.

“I think this sends the wrong message to the people of Coalinga and to the people of California,” Vosburg said.

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