A local lawyer has filed suit against the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, accusing the body of electioneering – or inappropriately using public funds – to promote a November ballot measure.
Attorney Eugene Wilson, who said he represents a group calling itself the Santa Barbara Coalition Against Automobile Subsidies, charges that SBCAG used taxpayer dollars to hire a “prestigious” polling firm to poll likely voters in the county and craft the language of the measure to determine which arguments would best persuade voters. Wilson also said he opposes the measure – which is an extension of a half-cent sales tax that provides millions of dollars for transportation funding – on environmental grounds.
In a complaint filed with the Santa Barbara Superior Court, Wilson stated that the measure would contribute to global warming and the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.
“Measure A subsidizes and encourages more automobile and truck traffic throughout Santa Barbara County,” Wilson said.
According to SBCAG spokesman Gregg Hart, the agency is not promoting the measure, but is educating the public about the upcoming ballot issue, a move he said that is protected by California law.
“An agency like SBCAG has a responsibility to explain to voters what they’re voting for,” Hart said. “I think [Wilson’s complaint] is a campaign tactic intended to generate a news story. His charge – that we’re using taxpayer dollars to campaign for this – is absurd. I think the courts are going to figure that out really quickly.”
Measure A is an amended version of Measure D, a failed measure that did not receive a two-thirds “yes” vote in 2006. While Measure D proposed a quarter-cent increase in addition to the existing half-cent sales tax, Measure A would serve only to preserve the half-cent sales tax already in place.
According to SBCAG, if the county fails to renew the sales tax before it sunsets in 2010, the state will no longer match the taxed funds and the costs of road repairs will have to come directly out of the county’s budget.
“The cost will get bigger and bigger,” Hart said. “If you stop having the funds for preventive maintenance, it ultimately destroys the quality of the road.”
In light of the split between North County and South County voting preferences in 2006 – with South County and Isla Vista heavily in support of the former Measure D and North County heavily opposed to it – SBCAG has proposed letting each area appropriate its own accumulated taxes.
“We’ve decided to split the money into two pots,” Hart said. “One for the North County and one for the South County, and let each decide which projects are going to be funded.”
Third District County Supervisor Brooks Firestone, a supporter of Measure D and now Measure A, said that if the public knew what was at stake, both forms of the legislation would pass.
“I think when people realize what would happen if we did not have Measure A, they will support it,” Firestone said. “It will cost us a fortune in matching funds and we won’t have the money. We will have deteriorating roads, which will ultimately fall to pieces.”