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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.”

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