Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Transportation Agency May Bring Anti-SLAPP Motion, C.A. Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A local transportation agency accused of making illegal campaign expenditures may bring a special motion to strike under the anti-SLAPP statute, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Six affirmed the dismissal of an action by a citizen’s group against the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. The Santa Barbara County Coalition Against Automobile Subsidies claimed SBCAG has been illegally spending public funds in support of Measure A, which will appear on the county’s ballot next Tuesday.
Measure A would extend a one-half cent sales tax used to finance transportation services. The tax was introduced in 1989 and will expire in 2010 unless the extension is approved.
SBCAG is the county’s designated local transportation agency under the Local Transportation Authority and Improvement Act, which authorizes such agencies to propose local sales taxes of up to one percent, which may then be enacted if voters approve.
The coalition sued SBCAG early this year, claiming it had illegally used public funds to promote the measure by various means, including hiring a pollster to help craft the language of the measure and lobbying community groups and community leaders to endorse it. The complaint sought an injunction against further advocacy or spending on behalf of the measure and a declaration that such advocacy was unlawful.
SBCAG filed an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the suit infringed on its First Amendment rights. The agency denied that it expended public funds in support of the measure or that it expressly advocated passage.
Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Thomas P. Anderle granted the special motion to strike and tossed the lawsuit.
Justice Steven Perren, writing for the Court of Appeal yesterday, accepted the coalition’s argument that it had standing to bring the action as a taxpayer, but said the trial judge was correct in ruling that the anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure Sec/. 425.16, applied and that the plaintiff was unlikely to prevail on the merits.
Perren rejected the argument that SBCAG has no First Amendment rights with respect to proposed ballot measures.
The justice noted that the allegedly unlawful advocacy, according to the complaint, included the agency’s issuance of statements regarding the county’s transportation needs and the costs of meeting them, and the dissemination of those statements to the public and to other governments bodies.
“It can no longer be questioned that section 425.16 extends to government entities and employees who issue reports and take positions on issues of public interest relating to their official duties,” Perren wrote.
The jurist went on to reject the coalition’s claim that it would probably prevail based on constitutional and statutory provisions barring the use of public funds to promote or oppose ballot measures.
Perren explained that those provisions do not apply because the complained-of activities occurred before the measure qualified for the ballot and because state law expressly requires local transportation agencies to study and report on local transportation needs before proposing ballot measures.
The case is Santa Barbara County Coalition Against Automobile Subsidies v. Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, B209525.
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