Political Notebook

After sexual predators swung an election, new law would change California voting rules

Coalinga's City Hall, photographed Wednesday, March 9, 2016.
Coalinga's City Hall, photographed Wednesday, March 9, 2016. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Four months after the patients of Coalinga State Hospital doomed a 1-cent sales tax needed to maintain police and fire staffing in the city, the state Assembly is weighing a change to state voting law that would limit sexually violent predators’ voting rights.

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula – the Fresno Democrat whose district encompasses much of Fresno County, including Coalinga – proposed the change on Feb. 16. In an interview this week, Arambula said he became aware of the issue after The Bee’s initial reporting on the failed ballot measure in November.

“I was shocked to find out that sexually violent predators were able to affect an outcome on something as important as public safety,” Arambula said. “This impacted the jobs of 23 police officers and firefighters who are desperately needed in Coalinga.”

Arambula’s one-page bill would set the residence status of any sexually violent predator committed to an indeterminate term in a California state hospital to his or her last known address.

Current law allows some patients at Coalinga State Hospital to vote in Coalinga, as the city annexed the hospital years ago to increase its population – a common tactic for small cities hoping to appear larger to attract potential businesses. A larger population count by the U.S. census also can bring more federal and tax revenues to a city for law enforcement, housing, transportation and other needs.

Joaquin Arambula (2)
California Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula

The proposed change must pass the Assembly and Senate before the governor can decide whether to sign it into law.

In November, a group of patients and former patients – organized as a group called Detainee-Americans for Civic Equality (DACE) – opted to oppose Coalinga’s Measure C, which would have raised the sales tax to pay for existing public services. Voting records show most of the hospital’s 304 registered voters voted against the tax, which failed by just 37 votes.

Robert Ferguson, a former patient and registered sex offender living in Fresno, is the community liaison for DACE. On Tuesday, he sent out a letter to activists and the news media blasting Arambula’s proposed legislation and threatening to do everything he can to keep the assemblyman from winning re-election this year.

In his letter, Ferguson said that patients at Coalinga are civil detainees, not prisoners. Many have been in custody for decades and will likely spend the rest of their lives in the hospital, he added.

Patients have no ties to their former addresses, Ferguson said, whereas measures in Coalinga do have a limited impact on them . The proposed sales tax hike would have increased prices at the hospital’s cafeteria, for example.

Arambula said he did not speak to any patients about voting in last November’s election this specific issue prior to proposing the law.

“The sexually violent predators don’t even use” community services in Coalinga, he said. “It’s much more appropriate for them to vote in the communities they will be returned to.”

The fallout from the defeated tax measure continues to reverberate through both Coalinga and the state hospital system.

In January, the hospital was locked down after patients began acting out due to a ban on certain personal electronic devices. The patients contend the hospital crackdown was in retaliation for the election, while the Department of State Hospitals says it was due to the spread of child pornography using the now-outlawed devices.

The patients have filed a lawsuit against the state.

The city of Coalinga has also filed an unrelated lawsuit against Fresno County, claiming the patients should never have been allowed to vote and demanding the election results be voided.

Coalinga proposed the sales tax after tough economic times led to a $557,000 deficit in its annual budget. The city’s Kmart, a major income producer, closed down, and income from its embrace of cannabis cultivation has been slow to materialize.