IFPD legal counsel agrees bar may be lowered

Late last month, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s commission got some positive news; however, it may have limited ability to capitalize on it.

The commission’s legal counsel provided an opinion that supported concerns in the political world and musings in the media following the state’s Supreme Court August decision in California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland.

In Uplands, the local coalition prepared and obtained signatures requesting a cannabis initiative that would legalize and tax medical-marijuana dispensaries in the city. The Supreme Court issued a decision supporting the right of citizens to propose initiatives, including Proposition 218, which has been incorporated into the state Constitution.

While the actual case only involved when the cannabis measure could go to the voters — either in a general or special election — the same section of the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote to approve a tax measure.

The Supreme Court essentially ruled that proposed measures initiated by voters are not coming from local government, which, therefore, excludes them from the requirements of these sections.

Since the language in the two sections is essentially identical, following the announcement of the decision, many commentators were worried about the possible ramifications of the decision. Specifically, they foresaw that local groups might inititate tax measures, which could be passed by a simple majority of voters rather than the current threshold of two-thirds.

After the Town Crier reported on the decision and its potential uses, the IFPD commission requested an opinion from its counsel. At last week’s meeting, Chief Patrick Reitz reported that the agency’s legal counsel opined that it would probably “work here.”

“The key is we can’t be directly involved,” stressed Commissioner Henry Sawicki, chair of the commission’s ad hoc committee on future parcel fee/tax measure.

He stressed that it must originate with a citizen group, unaffiliated with the department. If they secured signatures of 10 percent of registered voters, it could be placed on a ballot for approval. And its approval would be 50 percent plus 1 rather than two-thirds of the voters.

“We would have to distance ourselves from initiating the process,” he informed the commission, but added later, “A special initiative should be put on the ballot if people bring it. The board would be obligated to verify it and place it on the ballot at the earliest possible election.”

Immediately after the decision’s dissemination, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, issued the following statement: “If local initiatives are exempt from critical taxpayer protections, then public agencies could easily deny taxpayers their rights by colluding with outside interests to propose taxes in the form of an initiative, then submitting a tax under a lower vote threshold than that currently mandated by the constitution.”

The impact of the court’s opinion is “if [IFPD] brings the initiative, it requires a super-majority [two-thirds] to pass. If the public brings it, only a [simple] majority is necessary,” Reitz stated.

Since the Upland case did not specifically address the two-thirds approval, other commentators believe it will require another case for the Supreme Court to decide whether voter initiatives are exempt from this requirement.

Meanwhile, Sawicki affirmed that the committee would continue to explore whatever options are available to them to help raise revenue for the department.

“It’s got to be done,” he emphasized. “We need to build up some type of reserves. That’s just being fiscally responsible. We have no reserves if we were to suffer a catastrophe. It’s of paramount importance.”

In 2015, IFPD put Measure W on the ballot. That would have doubled the current parcel fee from $65 to $130 annually. The majority of voters approved it. The total “yes” votes were 58 percent, which was short of the 66.7 percent necessary for passage.

“We wouldn’t have put it on the ballot if we didn’t have a need, which has not diminished,” Reitz said.