Monday, July 16 , 2018, 11:34 pm | Fair 66º

Sports: A Noozhawk Partnership with The Lab and American Riviera Bank
The LabAmerican Riviera Bank

Measure A Opponent Sues SBCAG

Attorney accuses agency of illegal electioneering, but board members dismiss claims as spurious.

A local attorney is suing the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG, accusing it of illegally using taxpayer dollars to devise strategies to ensure that voters approve a transportation sales tax in November.

Supporters of the initiative — Measure A — call the claim spurious, saying such lawsuits are a common smear tactic for political opponents of ballot measures.

If passed, Measure A would continue a soon-to-expire half-cent tax for another 30 years. The money would go toward a wide-ranging list of transportation projects, such as widening Highway 101 between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria, as well as carpool lanes, bridge repairs, pedestrian pathways and commuter rail.

In court documents, attorney Eugene Wilson — who says he represents at least six people but declined to name any of them — alleged that SBCAG has illegally endorsed Measure A in various ways, including hiring a polling firm to help craft the ballot language “to generate the most affirmative votes for the measure.”  Wilson said he is representing a group called "Santa Barbara County Coalition Against Automobile Subsidies."

It is illegal for government agencies to use tax dollars to encourage people to vote on ballot measures — the practice is known as “electioneering.” But it is not illegal for agencies to use tax dollars to send out informational mailers.

SBCAG is essentially a regional government body representing every city in Santa Barbara County. Its 13-member board is made up of one city council member or mayor from each city, as well as all five county supervisors.

Board members of SBCAG and other advocates of Measure A say they have been diligent in understanding the difference between electioneering and education.

Interestingly, one of the Measure A supporters is new SBCAG board member Joe Armendariz, a Carpinteria city councilman, and — as the executive director of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association — usually one of the county’s most outspoken opponents of new taxes.

“Frankly, I just think it’s obnoxious,” Armendariz said Monday of the suit.

For Measure A to pass, it must be approved by at least two-thirds of voters. Over the course of three decades, it would generate an estimated $1 billion. Of that amount, about $145 million would be spent on Highway 101 improvements between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria.  The rest would be split evenly between the North County and the South Coast.

In 2006, advocates tried to pass a similar initiative — called Measure D — but failed. That measure sought to extend the existing sales tax while increasing the tax an additional quarter-cent. Measure A is seeking to maintain the current rate of sales tax only.

Armendariz was appointed to SBCAG last year. Ironically, he was among Measure D’s most vocal critics in 2006. Back then, he argued that the proposed initiative dedicated too much money to alternative modes of transportation, at the expense of highway improvements.

On Monday, Armendariz said he doesn’t believe Wilson has much of a case, because Measure A doesn’t even exist yet — technically.

“It will exist probably within the next couple of months’ time, when the Board of Supervisors puts it on the ballot,” he said.

On Thursday, SBCAG approved a list of projects that would be implemented if voters approve the measure.

On Friday, Wilson filed his lawsuit, which levels several charges. In addition to accusing SBCAG of inappropriately using a polling firm, Wilson alleges that some of the organization’s staff members — whose salaries are paid for with tax dollars — have advocated for the initiative at public meetings. He said, for instance, that staff member Gregg Hart, a public affairs official, is on video saying, during a public meeting, that “we need the voters to renew that measure.”

On Monday, Hart said he could not comment on the litigation. But Goleta Mayor Michael Bennett, an SBCAG board member, said he is not worried.

“Polling is legal and educating the electorate on an issue is legal,” he said. “I’m confident that we’re just fine.”

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >