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Much Ado About Parcel Tax, Council Minutes

A proposed change to the minutes of the Piedmont City Council's Sept. 4 meeting is sparking some controversy.

On Nov. 6, Piedmont voters will decide whether to renew the city's municipal services tax ("parcel tax"). Renewal of the tax — Measure Y — requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

In recent weeks, some members of the city's Municipal Tax Review Committee (MTRC) and other Piedmont voters have questioned whether the parcel tax should be renewed before the city takes steps to improve its financial position and/or its handling of fiscal matters.

Recently some of that conversation has centered on whether the ballot argument in favor of Measure Y is misleading when it states "The City Council unanimously [Editor's note: boldface emphasis added] supports RENEWAL of the existing Municipal Services Tax, because Measure [Y] is essential for the maintenance of city services" and whether that statement should be altered. Councilmember Garrett Keating has said that while he supported placing the measure before voters, he has not taken a position or or against its passage.   

In a letter to the editor appearing on Piedmont Patch today, two Piedmont residents focus on discussion of the issue at the Sept. 4, 2012, city council meeting and proposed changes to the draft minutes of that meeting. [Editor's note: The following transcripts may make more sense if you read the letter first: click here to read. See also an earlier letter by Ryan Gilbert. Check "See more on Patch" at right for additional letters on the subject.]

Included below:

  • Original draft of the disputed portion of the mnute
  • Proposed changes to the minutes
  • Transcript of City Administrator Geoffrey Grote's remarks at the Sept. 4 council meeting

Original draft of this portion of the Sept. 4 meeting minutes [Editor's note: Piedmont Patch has highlighted the paragraph in dispute in italics]:

Ryan Gilbert criticized the Council and staff for stating in its ballot argument in favor of the passage of Measure Y on the November 6th ballot (renewal of the City's Municipal Services Tax) that the City Council is unanimous in its support of parcel tax renewal when this statement is blatantly false and misleading. He voiced his disappointment that City staff, despite requests to do so, failed to take the necessary court action to correct the ballot argument language. He urged the Council to clarify the matter for the public by either pursuing a filing with the court to amend the ballot language or placing on the public record an unanimous Council resolution in support of parcel tax renewal.

In response to Mr. Gilbert's comments, the City Administrator explained that neither staff nor the Mayor and Councilmember Wieler who drafted the ballot argument were aware of any misunderstanding with regard to the Council's support of the ballot measure. He stated that both readings of Ordinance 707 N.S. placing the renewal of the Municipal Services Tax before the voters as well as Council authorization for the Mayor and Councilmember Wieler to draft a direct argument in favor of tax renewal as well as a rebuttal argument in response to an argument opposed to ballot measure passage were unanimously approved by the Council. He stated that he did not file a writ with the court to change the ballot argument language because the deadline for argument submittal to county election officials had passed.

Councilmember Keating responded that while he supported adoption of Ordinance 707 N.S. for procedural reasons he himself is neutral with regard to parcel tax renewal. As for his support of the authorization to draft a ballot argument in favor of the tax renewal measure, he clarified that since the argument was not going to be signed by all five Councilmembers, he felt it would not be construed as having the unanimous support of the City Council. However, he acknowledged how there could have been a misunderstanding over his position. Mayor Chiang and Councilmember Wieler stressed that when drafting the ballot argument in favor of tax renewal, they had no inkling of Councilmember Keating's reservations because no indication of such had been previously voiced. However, they apologized to Councilmember Keating for failing to realize his point of view and inadvertently misrepresenting his position on the matter. The Vice Mayor suggested that this issue be revisited under the Council's consideration of  Future Agenda Items.  

Proposed change to this portion of the draft of Sept. 4 meeting minutes [Editor's note: Piedmont Patch has highlighted the proposed changes / additions to this portion of the draft minutes in italics]:

Proposed September 4th Minutes Correction: City Administrator Grote

On page 2, strike the second paragraph and replace it with:

In response to Mr. Gilbert's comments, the City Administrator explained that neither staff nor the Mayor and Councilmember Wieler who drafted the ballot argument were aware of any misunderstanding with regard to the Council's support of the ballot measure at the time the argument was submitted.  He stated that both readings of Ordinance 707 N.S. placing the renewal of the Municipal Services Tax before the voters as well as Council authorization for the Mayor and Councilmember Wieler to draft a direct argument in favor of tax renewal as well as a rebuttal argument in response to an argument opposed to ballot measure passage were unanimously approved by the Council. He stated that as this issue was raised after the deadline for argument submittal, the proponents were not in a position to change the argument, only a Court could, as he was informed by Mr. Curry. In addition, as neither the staff nor the Council were cognizant of the distinction that is being drawn at this time between voting to put the measure on the ballot and supporting it, that he was not willing to file with the court for a writ. He pointed out that any qualified voter of the City could have filed for a writ or injunction with the court or that the opponents could have used the rebuttal argument to argue their point. 

Transcript of City Administrator Geoffrey Grote's remarks at the Sept. 4 council meeting:

This item came to my attention when I was on vacation and I received an email from Councilmember Keating asking whether or not, first of all, stating that he thought a misunderstanding had occurred with regard to whether or not he and the votes he had cast expressed support for the continuation of the tax. And he sent me an email and asked if I would file a writ to change the language that had been submitted by the council-appointed committee.

I responded that I would not and that was my answer. Let me tell you that by the time this item, this issue, came up, the arguments both pro and con had been submitted to the city and then the city had forwarded them on to the county, to the elections officials there.

And consulting with Mr. Curry [City Attorney Tom Curry], by the time this issue arose, we felt the only way it could be corrected was to go to court and to have a court change it. In other words, the proponents were no longer in a position to rewrite their argument. It had been submitted and the time frame for that had passed, the deadline had passed.

In consequence of that, I looked at the nature of the argument and what had occurred and as you will recall, there had been two occasions where the ordinance to place the matter on the ballot had been read as requred by law. It takes two readings. I believe it was July 2 and July 16.

At the July 2nd meeting, in addition to the item that placed the matter on the ballot, there was a second item on that same agenda which appointed the mayor and one other council member, Councilmember Wieler, to write the argument in favor, the ballot argument in favor, and also I believe to submit a rebuttal if that was necessary.

And as I wrote back to Councilmember Keating, at no time did either I or the staff or the council know that those items, those votes, were not only in support of placing the matter on the ballot, which I think is separate from supporting the tax, but also authorizing the mayor and one other member to speak for the council in support. And so at the time the argument came in, I think nobody had any inkling that there was a misunderstanding or that there had not been an endorsement. 

The appointment of the mayor and Councilmember Wieler to write the argument in favor was unanimous, so it was a misunderstanding that I thought there wasn't much we could do about it at the time.

Any member of the public, any qualified voter, I guess, in Piedmont can file or could have filed a writ or an injunction. In addition I think the rebuttal was the other possibility.

But with regard to either the proponents or the staff changing the argument, by the time the issue came up, that deadline had passed, it wasn't an option. So this issue that arose after, and I'm sorry there was a misunderstanding, I don't honestly think that the distinction that's being drawn now was known to ... we were not cognizant of it, and so it has led to this issue. That's what I know about it.

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Rick Schiller September 17, 2012 at 04:05 PM
http://piedmont.patch.com/articles/letter-7ec2e967 for further comments and understanding about the 9/4 minutes revision.
David Cohen September 17, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Interesting explanation from Mr. Grote, although a little meandering. Now, let’s all try to figure out what it means. Readers can vote for any one or more of the following possibilities: a) We’re innocent. We tried our hardest to be fair and square. b) Yep, we did it. And we’re getting away with it, pal. c) It’s complicated and kind of hard to remember. e) The dog ate my homework. f) We were not cognizant.
Rick Schiller September 20, 2012 at 05:21 PM
(b) based on the false presumption of (f). Whether cognizant or not, the issue is the misinformation.
David Cohen September 21, 2012 at 05:16 AM
Here’s a short report on responses I’ve received from readers privately. Many well-informed readers weighed in. Some had inside information but requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. I actually agree with Mr. Schiller’s analysis, but the vast majority of my respondents identified option E as the correct answer. Evidently, the dog ate Mr. Grote’s homework. The survey is still open, by the way, in case readers have further information or theories.
Rick Schiller September 22, 2012 at 12:55 AM
Perhaps we should hold Fido accountable as the only responsibility Piedmont City Hall has taken in this matter is to undertake a major revision of the City Minutes on the ballot misinformation item. Despite the minutes redo, important information is still missing. www.NoOnMeasureY.com

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