The Coastal Post - April, 1997

Rewarding Inefficiency—A Failure Of The Democratic Process

BY GERALD N. PEARLMAN

Measure D

The recent Muir Beach ballot initiative for the adoption of an ordinance of the Board of Directors of the Muir Beach Community Services District achieved an underwhelming victory in this month's special election. The Measure approved and adopted the levy of a special tax on the real property located within the district in order to support a 20-year plan for water system improvements.

Forty-four percent of those eligible to vote turned out, and the Measure passed with 73.1 percent of less than half the eligible voters (76) voting Yes, while 26.9% (28) voted No. These numbers barely achieved the two-thirds majority necessary for passage under Prop. 13. Ten voters were declared ineligible for unspecified reasons, and these voters could have supplied the margin of victory for the No vote if that indeed was their intention.

This election, like so many others throughout the country, reflects the failure of the democratic process. Registered voters are not turning out on election day to vote. The election results for a very long time now have been determined by only a majority of the minority voting.

In this matter Muir Beach has proven once again that it is no different than anywhere else. Property values was the main rallying cry for the supporters of the tax.

The issue was not complicated. It merely amounted to exhausting other options before going to the expense and effort of mounting an election. (It costs between $1.50 and $3.00 per registered voter to get a measure on the ballot). There are several federal and state programs in place which were established specifically to advise and aid small water districts like that of Muir Beach through grants. How is it possible to reconcile not first applying for funding already established primarily to help small water systems like Muir Beach before taxing ourselves to do the same thing these government programs are already set up to do?

I was informed on good authority that millions of dollars in this government program administered by the California Department of Health went unclaimed this year, and that the program specifically applied to districts like Muir Beach. We have in fact received money before from this program.

I do not mean to imply that funding would be automatic, but it simply makes more sense to exhaust funding possibilities in place before putting tax measures on the ballot and using up a great deal of our time and resources.

Getting anyone to pay attention to this simple fact proved to be very difficult. As in The Emperor's New Clothes people simply refused to believe the obvious. Of course, plain old scare tactics, mis-statement of fact, and innuendo helped those supporting the measure. The IJ and Pacific Sun newspaper coverage was atrocious. Our water system was characterized as "rotting" in the press, quoting our general manager, who was the main architect of the new tax. (There is only a normal amount of dry rot in the large storage tank.)

Then the press reported that the district was already out of money and had to borrow money from the county. The reality was that the water department had done some extra work not envisaged in their approved budget, and thus had spent more than they intended to. Money was moved from another budget line item to cover the overexpenditure. But it was all existing Muir Beach money in the general fund; no money was ever borrowed from the county, as was reported in the IJ. (When I wrote the IJ a letter correcting their analysis, it was not printed.)

Then there was a whole bunch of nonsense about challenges to Muir Beach water rights requiring the district to have money to defend itself against the imagined attack. The argument in favor of the measure alleged that we "lacked clear legal title to our current course." To pay serious attention to what supporters of the tax called a "cloud on the title" to our water rights is utter nonsense, but certainly an effective way to gain more support for additional taxes.

There have been some protests by a low-level coalition of environmental groups. Muir Beach has taken water from the same source for nearly three-quarters of this century. To believe that 500 residents could lose the beneficial use of water for domestic purposes is only of interest to lawyers who could milk this issue for a big chunk if not all of the money raised by Measure D.

Unfortunately there is no alternative to government as we know it. But it there really no alternative to rewarding governmental inefficiency?