Monday, May 22, 2006
Ventura Public Safety Initiative Held Unconstitutional by C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The people of a general law county cannot prescribe minimum budgets for their local district attorney, sheriff, public defender and fire department through the initiative process, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Six Thursday reversed Ventura Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh’s order upholding Ventura County Ordinance 4808. Presiding Justice Kenneth Yegan, writing for the court, said the ordinance unconstitutionally interfered with the budgetary responsibilities of the Board of Supervisors.
The board adopted the ordinance in 1995, dispensing with a public vote that would otherwise have been necessary after the petition was signed by the required number of registered voters. The ordinance established 1995-96 budgets for the affected agencies and required that the budgets for each agency in subsequent years would be not less than its base year budget plus “associated inflationary costs.”
The intent of the ordinance, its backers explained, was to prevent the county from offsetting the one-half cent sales tax dedicated to public safety, adopted in 1993 as Proposition 172, by using general revenues that would otherwise have gone to those agencies for other services.
Litigation initiated by the district attorney and sheriff, and joined by the City of Thousand Oaks and citizens who backed the ordinance, ensued in 2003 after supervisors decided that the term “associated inflationary costs” meant the rate of inflation as reflected by the Consumer Price Index, rather than the actual increases in the agencies’ costs of providing services. The board’s new interpretation improperly cost the agencies more than $50 million, District Attorney Greg Totten and Sheriff Bob Brooks alleged.
The board argued that its interpretation was correct, and that the ordinance was in any event unconstitutional.
In April of last year, after expending more than $1.4 million on the litigation, the parties reached a settlement in which they agreed to a new funding formula, with the board reserving the right to appeal solely on the constitutional issue. The county counsel explained at the time that if the ordinance were struck down on appeal, it would be up to supervisors to decide whether to continue to abide by the compromise.
The terms of the settlement were incorporated in a stipulated judgment.
Yegan, writing for the Court of Appeal, explained that as a general law county, Ventura is bound by statutes giving non-delegable budgetary power over county agencies to county supervisors. In enacting those laws, the presiding justice said, “the Legislature intended that the authority to adopt budgets for county public safety agencies be exercised specifically and exclusively by the board of supervisors, barring use of the local initiative power.:
Were it otherwise, Yegan reasoned, the voters could adopt a funding formula that would cause the public safety budget to grow to a point at which the county lacked money to meet other needs, including those, such as maintenance of facilities for delinquent and dependent juveniles, conduct of elections, and health care for the indigent, which it is statutorily required to make adequate provision for.
The case drew several amicus briefs, with the California District Attorneys Association, California State Sheriffs Association, and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association defending the ordinance and the California State Association of Counties attacking it.
The case is Totten v. Board of Supervisors, 06 S.O.S. 2494.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company