Lawsuit seeks to get San Diego parcel tax on November 2024 ballot
Supporters of the proposed tax, intended to fund libraries and parks, say the city and county improperly determined that they failed to gather enough signatures.
Supporters of a proposed parcel tax intended to raise money to upgrade parks and libraries in San Diego have filed a lawsuit as a last-ditch effort to get the measure on the November 2024 ballot.
The lawsuit says city and county officials improperly determined that supporters didn’t collect enough signatures in support of the measure, which would create a $250 million dedicated funding source for city parks and libraries, especially in low-income areas.
Supporters are undecided about making a second try after a signature campaign that cost about $1 million.
The suit claims officials invalidated signatures on flimsy grounds and set the number of required signatures artificially high by basing it on the number of registered voters in the 2020 general election instead of the 2022 general election.
If the measure makes it on the ballot and is approved by more than 50 percent of voters, properties in the city would be taxed annually at 2 cents per square foot, up to a maximum of one acre, for 30 years.
Exemptions would go to properties zoned agricultural and to property owners making less than 80 percent of the area median income, or $104,110 for a family of four in 2023.
The effort, intended for the November 2022 ballot, is planned as a citizens initiative needing only simple majority approval.
Supporters said their fight to upgrade deteriorating parks and libraries has morphed into a wider battle over the rights of voters.
“Our libraries and parks desperately need help, yet this is now about much more than fixing our civic infrastructure,” San Diego Library Foundation Chief Executive Patrick Stewart and Parks Foundation Chairman Michel Anderson said in a statement.
“This is about the rights of registered voters to petition their government for change and to be able to trust that their signature is counted. If our initiative did not qualify for legitimate reasons, we would have accepted that, but we do not believe that is the case.”
In court documents in response to the litigation, City Clerk Diana Fuentes and county Registrar of Voters Cynthia Paes denied any wrongdoing.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor has scheduled a Jan. 5 hearing in the case.
The suit says the determination in February that supporters didn’t gather enough signatures was “inaccurate and legally unjustified.”
The first argument it makes is that the threshold should have been 80,020 valid signatures — 10 percent of the registered voters in the 2022 general election — not 82,566, which is 10 percent of the number of registered voters in the 2020 general election.
City officials used the 2020 figure because signature gathering began in summer 2022, before the number of registered voters in the 2022 election was known. But the lawsuit argues for the 2022 figure because the signatures were submitted in December, shortly after the 2022 general election in November.
The suit also claims the registrar invalidated signatures for weak and insufficient reasons, such as slight misspellings and electronic signatures on voter rolls looking different than signatures on paper petitions.
Other criticisms include signatures being invalidated because the dates of signature gathering didn’t match the dates written on petitions by voters. The suit says many voters accidentally wrote their birthday instead of the date they were signing.
The suit says the registrar used overly strict and legally unsupported criteria to invalidate signatures.
The suit, however, does not contend that city or county officials did anything out of the ordinary. Instead, it argues that what appear to be ordinary procedures are either improper or unfair.
Because the registrar based the determination on sampling 3 percent of the 111,000 signatures submitted, it would take only 185 additional valid signatures for supporters to be close enough to force a full vetting of all signatures, according to the suit.
The sampling projected that 87.5 percent of the signatures were valid, short of the 95 percent necessary for a full vetting. Shifting from the 2020 figure of registered voters to the 2022 number would help close that gap, supporters of the measure say.
“The court is the only avenue we have to request the right to ultimately challenge the qualifying criteria and how they were applied, with the goal of ensuring that the intent of voters is acknowledged,” Stewart and Anderson said. “We want to make sure that no voter who signs a citizens’ initiative is disenfranchised.”