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Should City Staff Have Control Over Arguments in the Sample Ballot?

Daily Dose 2010-10-19 0 comments

By Greggory Moore | Originally posted on The

Measure B - Long Beach Marijuana General Tax

LONG BEACH, CA — 8:00am | When the Long Beach Elections Bureau officially informs you that you have been chosen by the mayor and ratified by the city council to write an argument for or against an initiative in the sample ballot, they tell you to “please coordinate preparation and submission of arguments with” any other co-writers who have also been chosen.

But the reality is that if your co-writer is a member of city staff and doesn’t want a single word of your contribution to make it into the sample ballot, the fact that the mayor has chosen and the council ratified you is meaningless.

I know, because it just happened to me.

On August 10, I was chosen to co-write an argument in favor of Measure B, an initiative to create a 15% business license tax on recreational marijuana use (contingent, of course, on the passage of Proposition 19, the state’s “Regulate, Control, and Tax Marijuana Act,” on which I trust you’ll all be voting YES), to be placed in the November sample ballot you received in the mail.

My co-writer was Lori Ann Farrell, the City’s director of Financial Management, and it turned out I was late to the party. Farrell had done a lot of work on bringing Measure B to the ballot, so not surprisingly she presumed she would be chosen as a writer to craft a pro-Measure B argument and had already written a draft that had been vetted in advance of either her or me formally being chosen as argument writers. As she put it later, “I went down an independent path getting all of the approval of every little last letter and every last word of [her version of the argument] for days before you and I even came together.”

And here is where we come to a problem. As Farrell made pains to emphasize to me, literally everything she signs—”a council letter, a memo, a piece of correspondence”—must be cleared by multiple other city staffers before it goes out. According to Farrell, when she signs something, it’s really not just she who is doing the signing, but also “several levels” of city staff.

Presuming this is true of not just the City’s director of Financial Management but of a host of city positions, that means every time you see a ballot argument written or co-written by a city staffer, that is an argument that not just the signatories but “several levels” of city staff is comfortable allowing into the ballot.

Why do I say “allowing?” Because Election Code Section 9287 lays out the procedure for what happens if the argument writers chosen to craft a position for or against a given initiative submit separate arguments: priority goes to “the legislative body, or member or members of the legislative body authorized by that body.”

The thing is, sometimes—if not frequently—it is the case that “the legislative body” may have a preference regarding whether a given ballot initiative passes. You can see, then, that if in a given case they did not want a particular proposition or measure to pass, they might prefer not to see a very strong argument in its favor make its way into the 213,0001 sample ballots that get mailed out in Long Beach.

How to exercise this preference? Simple: get a member of city staff to sign on as an argument writer in favor of the issue, then don’t let her sign off on any argument that is too strong for comfort.

I am not saying this is necessarily what happened here. I have every reason to believe Farrell herself sincerely wants Measure B to pass. And the argument she crafted in favor of its passage makes a reasonable case for how if Proposition 19 passes, Long Beach should put itself in a position to generate significant revenue without any non-recreational marijuana users paying a penny.

But that’s all it says. And I cannot believe nothing else could have been included that would have helped convince voters to vote Yes on Measure B—to say nothing of Proposition 19, without which Measure B’s passage is moot.

Certainly this unsatisfying state of affairs does not exist for lack of trying on my part. I crafted my own draft of a “pro” argument and presented it to Farrell. She raised some issues with my first draft (in particular, I had a piece of financial information wrong) and offered to attempt a hybridized version of our arguments. Although this never materialized (for time constraints, she said2), I attempted not one but two hybridizations of our arguments—the second containing only two-and-a-half sentences of my input. To wit, I suggested opening the argument with the following:

Marijuana consumption is a fact. Proposition 19—the “Regulate, Control, and Tax Marijuana Act”—is on the ballot because enough Californians who recognize this fact want the state to benefit from the tax revenue that can be generated from marijuana, billions of dollars that can be used to fund emergency services (fire, police, etc.), education, and infrastructure.

And I suggested including the following italicized lines in the closing paragraph:

Even if you don’t vote YES on Proposition 19, you should vote YES on Measure B to ensure that IF marijuana is legalized in California, the City of Long Beach can impose a tax that will generate millions of dollars for our necessary services. To vote “no” on these ballot initiatives is to say it is more important to keep the status-quo criminalization of marijuana than it is to better fund essential aspects of Long Beach life. And that is a woeful lack of priorities.

I dare say these insertions would have broadened the breadth of the argument and its appeal. That the City could and should benefit from the tax money is a worthy reason to vote for Measure B; but I imagine that also framing the issue as a question of societal progress and a simple matter of priorities would have given voters another handle by which to grab their YES vote and drop it in the ballot box—and to vote Yes on 19 so that passing Measure B actually matters.

It’s hard to imagine that Farrell could believe otherwise .3 And although she did not return my repeated invitations for her to provide input into this piece, nothing she said during our discussions between August 11 and August 134 and subsequently makes me think she does. Rather, the theme she kept sounding was that she felt she would have been unable to get clearance on any draft with my input.5 “I don’t sign off on anything by myself, right?” she explained after I expressed my chagrin at her unwillingness to sign off on even my version of the argument with only the two-and-a-half Greggory sentences. “I mean, I have to go through levels on everything that has my signature in the city. […] Nothing goes out under my signature that doesn’t go through several levels of review […] I didn’t think it was going to be feasible to try to get another revision through and get everybody to agree. It wasn’t just you and I, Greggory.”

Which brings us back to the question of preference by our “legislative body” for or against the passage of a given ballot initiative. And if you’ve followed the convoluted goings-on while the City has installed regulations for medical marijuana, you are quite aware that Long Beach’s allowance of medpot collectives is not a sign of our having a city staff that is pro-marijuana or even particularly compassionate toward medpot patients. As then-7th District Councilmember Tonia Reyes Uranga (one of four who fought for a compassionate ordinance6) bluntly said regarding the city’s medical marijuana ordinance, “Let’s be very clear: the purpose of this ordinance is to put [collectives] out of business.”

So is it really such a leap to think that perhaps city staff reified its preference against the passage of Measure B7 by way of refusing (at least indirectly) to allow Farrell to sign off on an argument including language that might have increased the likelihood of the 213,000 recipients of the sample ballot voting Yes? You tell me.

Whatever the case, I don’t think it’s very controversial to declare that an argument for or against a given ballot initiative ought to be the strongest argument possible for that position—regardless of the preference of the legislative body. That is the entire purpose of ballot arguments; that is their raison d’ĂŞtre.

But so long as we have the current system in place in Long Beach, it will always be possible—and easy—for city staff to preclude the most persuasive arguments from being presented to the voters in the sample ballot.


1 This figure according to City Clerk Larry Herrera. (back)

2 To be sure, time was not on our side, as the window between my selection as an argument writer and the time by which the argument needed to be in the hands of the City Clerk’s office was less than 72 hours. I have no reason to disbelieve Farrell’s claim that time was an issue. (back)

3 The only real philosophical disagreement Farrell and I seemed to have was over how much emphasis Prop. 19 should get in the pro-Measure B argument: Farrell wanted basically none, feeling that this would be a better way to get anti-Prop. 19 people to vote Yes on B; I, on the other hand, believed relatively few voting against 19 would vote Yes on B (because wouldn’t anyone who doesn’t want marijuana legalized by their state at the very least want to keep it out of their city?!), and thus the cause would be better served by emphasizing the pragmatic realities represented and opportunities presented by Prop. 19 and Measure B. (back)

4 While the end result suggests Farrell was not open to collaborating (for whatever reasons), it must be said that she and I talked extensively and quite congenially during that 72-hour window. Thus do I suspect that her ultimate inflexibility may in fact have been less about our director of Financial Planning herself and more about the “several levels” of city staffers that are apparently ghost signatories on Farrell’s argument. (back)

5 I.e., because of the content of the input I offered, not because there’s some conspiracy amongst city staff against Greggory Moore. (back)

6Viz., along with Garcia, Gabelich, and ex-Vice Mayor Lerch. To recap the others: Lowenthal talked compassion but in playing politics consistently motioned and voted otherwise; DeLong mostly tried to stay under the radar but was not a good friend to the patients; O’Donnell was smugly pugnacious; Schipske seems to get it and yet deferred toward political efficaciousness (even though a Public Records Request revealed that, based on communications with her office, her constituents are significantly more in favor of medpot collectives in the 5th District than her Chief of Staff Josh Butler represented to me in conversation); and Andrews seemingly meant well but was too easily swayed by the City Attorney’s office, even when they put forth dubious (and on at least one occasion patently false) claims. (back)

7 Or more generally, against the passage of Proposition 19, which Farrell barely mentions in her argument, even though (to reiterate, because it bears repeating) its passage is essential to Measure B. (back)

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