(7/24/10) Editorial – All Valid Signatures Should Be Counted, Not Just Some

Date approximate, within a week

This editorial is the opinion of Bill Coburn, publisher of Sierra Madre News Net and 15 year Sierra Madre resident. It is not intended to reflect the views of any other person or entity with whom I am associated

The results of the verification of resident protest letters regarding the water rate increase is to be reported to the City Council at Tuesday night’s meeting. That verification was to consist of eliminating any duplicate letters, then cross-checking the names/addresses on the protest letters against the City’s water billing list. If the name listed for an address in a protest was not the name on the City’s water billing list, the name was then to be checked against the Assessor’s Parcel database to see if the name the County Assessor has listed as the parcel owner was the same as the name on the protest. If the name and address of a protestor could not be matched with either the City’s water billing list or the County Assessor database, it was to be disqualified.

The City Clerk was charged with verifying the signatures. Again, verification was to include both the City’s water list and the County Assessor’s Parcel database. Verifying against just one list or the other means that only half the job was done. Checking just the water bill would mean that a protesting property owner whose tenant pays the water bill might be wrongfully disqualified, because their name is not on the water bill. Checking just the Parcel list would mean that protesting tenants who pay for their own water might be wrongfully disqualified, because the Assessor doesn’t show their name as the property owner. So it is imperative that both lists be checked, to make sure everyone that has a legal right to protest is given their right to do so.

Last weekend, more than a week before the presentation of the report to the City Council was scheduled to take place, City Clerk Nancy Shollenberger announced in a press release that she had “tabulated and determined the validity of the written protests to the City’s proposed water fee increase. I hereby find and give notice that there were 1,898 written protests. Accordingly, a majority of parcel owners, who would have been impacted by the proposed fee increase, have submitted written protests.” The press release stated that there were 1,898 written protests, plus 151 duplicates (2,049 total).

She added the following post script:
“P.S. The City Clerk did not have access to the Assessor’s Parcel Numbers List/Owner’s Names. If this list is made available to her, she will be happy to check the list again.”

Let’s look at this statement. Ms. Shollenberger states that a majority of parcel owners, who would have been impacted by the proposed fee increase, have submitted written protests. A) It’s not just parcel owners that are to be counted, it’s rate payers as well, hence the need to verify against both the water bill list and the Parcel Owner’s database. Why weren’t the rate payers referenced in her statement? B) How can she find and give notice that a majority of parcel owners have protested, when she, by her own admission, hasn’t accessed the database of Parcel Owners?

In addition, the first sentence of this post script is just flat out not true. Anybody that goes to the Assessor’s Office and asks for it has access to that list (our City staff did just that in order to double check signatures, see below). Also, anybody with online access to MLS has access to that list, and I’m sure there are many Sierra Madreans that have access to MLS that would have been happy to help with this task.

What Ms. Shollenberger was really trying to say was that she was denied access by the City to that list, a claim the City has denied. The City doesn’t have a parcel owner’s “list,” however, it does have software that provides them access to the County Assessor’s database, so that specific addresses/parcels can be looked up to verify ownership. According to City Manager Elaine Aguilar, our City Clerk, on three different occasions, was offered access to that database, and access to a staff member to make sure that if the City Clerk had problems with the software, there was someone there that was familiar enough with the software that any issues might be resolved. She declined the offer each time.

According to Ms. Aguilar, Nancy told her she intended instead to be at City Hall during the part of the City staff’s review of the protest letters when staff was using the Assessor’s database to cross-check any letters that did not match the water bill names. In fact, according to Ms. Shollenberger herself, she intended to be there. To quote the City Clerk from an e-mail I received from her on Tuesday: “I have asked her (Ms. Aguilar) to let me know when they will start and I will be there.” That was originally scheduled to begin on Tuesday. However, cross-checking the water bill names against the protest letters took longer than anticipated and so the second phase didn’t begin until Wednesday morning. According to the City Manager, verification against the Assessor’s Parcel list took place both Wednesday and Thursday. Yet for some reason, the City Clerk decided not to go. According to the City Manager, Ms. Shollenberger instead sent a “deputy” to observe on Wednesday, but just a few minutes before staff began checking the names, the deputy announced that she had to run home for a few minutes. She never came back, and so even though staff was checking names against the Assessor’s database for two full days, no one from the City Clerk’s office was on hand to take note of their findings. Part of the reason that aspect of the verification took two full days is that City staff, knowing there is the possibility of delay in updating the online database, after checking online, physically went to the Assessor’s office and double checked any names that had not matched up during their online verification attempt.

I expect that Ms. Shollenberger’s report to the City Council will differ from the report in her press release. After all, she has publicly issued two different numbers for the number of protests she has received (the figure of 1,941 that she stated at the July 13th City Council meeting was different than the 1,898/2,049 figures she provided in her press release), and in an e-mail to me on Tuesday the 20th, she stated she had 1,959, a third number. In addition, her press release clearly states that she had failed to perform the assigned task of verifying signatures against the Assessor’s Parcel list, which leaves the possibility that some qualified protestors had not, at that time, had their protests allowed. One wonders why she would even issue such a press release, since it clearly states that she hadn’t completed her job at the time it was issued.

So it is important that she now follow through with the verification against the Assessor’s database, and issue a final report in which the verification process is completed, not done half way. Ms. Shollenberger has (erroneously) claimed she doesn’t have access to the Assessor’s database, and didn’t have anybody on hand taking notes when the City was accessing the database. Since the City Clerk has chosen not to be involved when the City Staff was checking the Assessor’s Parcel database, it is critical that the City Clerk’s office now access the Assessor’s Parcel list on its own to verify the names, before issuing its report on Tuesday. It’s the only way to ensure that ALL protests that SHOULD be counted, ARE counted.

The sad part in all this is how unnecessary the controversy is. Council stated at the last meeting that the water rate increase was not moving forward, and directed staff to develop an outreach program to do a better job of informing residents why it feels a water rate increase is required. So this whole verification process is a formality, albeit a necessary one. If I remember correctly, and I could be wrong, memory occasionally fails, but I believe Joe Mosca asked if it was even necessary to count the protests since the increase was dead, and Council Member MacGillivray (correctly) stated that it was necessary. But this should be a non-issue: a quick look for duplicates, followed by a comparison of names/addresses against the water bill, and then a cross check of parcel lot owners, culminating in a 30 second reading of the final count on Tuesday. Instead, we have three different numbers from the City Clerk, which calls everything into question. We have accusations by the City Clerk that the City has refused to provide access to the very list the City directed her to use (what sense would that make?) which only adds to the problem. And we have unsubstantiated allegations that the City Manager is trying to make her own list so she can force the water rate increase through, when all she’s trying to do is ensure that the City is protected by making sure the signature verification is done the proper way. Which, by the way, is her job, the City Council directed staff to work on these numbers, too. She’s conducting her own analysis. In theory, since she’s working from the same list the City Clerk is, and they are operating under the same guidelines, the numbers should be exactly the same in the City Manager’s report as they are in the City Clerk’s.

City staff should be concentrating on trying to figure out a way to get some money to the water department in a manner that is acceptable to the rate payers, not concerning themselves with a ridiculous controversy over what should be a non-issue.