A costly lawsuit could be brewing between members of the Board of Supervisors
After almost three hours of dense, legalistic debate Tuesday morning, the Board of Supervisors could agree on only one thing, and then just barely—that voters should decide whether the controversial Plan 5 redistricting proposal becomes the law of the land here.
From that point on, the matter got either really interesting or downright weird, depending on your perspective.
Remember that county voters have overwhelmingly supported a petition drive to repeal Plan 5. That has forced the supervisors either to abandon the plan or put it up for a vote.
OK, we’ll put it up for a vote, said the supervisors, including 5th District Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, who authored Plan 5. But Yamaguchi also introduced a motion that would allow the voting districts set up by that very Plan 5 to be used for the March 5 election. In other words, voters would be organized by districts according to the very plan on which they were voting.
As if that weren’t enough, they also would be voting for new supervisors in Districts 3 and 4, the Chico-area seats now held by Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx. Dolan and Houx have charged vehemently that Plan 5 is a blatant effort to make it harder for them to get re-elected by placing much of their core constituencies in other, more rural districts.
That means that they will both face the very real possibility that, if Yamaguchi gets his way, they will be voted out of office on the same day that voters repeal the very districts that made them so vulnerable to defeat in the first place. Can you see lawyers smiling?
Indeed, Tuesday’s meeting was drenched with political and legal maneuvering.
Almost the entire county administration—including County Counsel Bruce Alpert and County Clerk Candace Grubbs—urged Yamaguchi to drop his motion to use the Plan 5 districts for the March 5 election. He staunchly refused, asserting that a California Supreme Court case decided in 1973 gives legal precedent to his cause.
But Alpert, the county’s own lawyer, told him in no uncertain terms that his case was “legally flawed, inflammatory” and certain to be challenged in court. The resulting court and lawyer fees, he warned, could be “catastrophic” to the county.
“You’re using constitutionally inaccurate information,” Alpert said, “… to suggest an action that you have no legal authority to make. I know of no statute that could allow this body to enact anything that has been suspended by [a certification] of referendum.”
Even so, Yamaguchi charged on, reading several pages of a legal opinion he gleaned from conservative Sacramento attorney Charles Bell. Bell is the same man who spoke on Yamaguchi’s behalf when he first introduced Plan 5 under a storm of allegations of impropriety.
Alpert wasn’t the only county official who urged Yamaguchi to drop his motion. Grubbs told the board that, although she was “saddened” to do so, she planned to refuse to follow Yamaguchi’s edict that she include his precise wording on Plan 5 that he submitted for the March ballot, saying that the county has for years used stock wording and only plugged in ordinance numbers and the like. This way, she said, her office is fair and impartial.
She asserted that Yamaguchi’s wording was “inflammatory and argumentative,” a charge that Alpert supported.
Again, Yamaguchi refused to back down. He called Alpert’s assertion “totally inappropriate” and said that Grubbs (who is an elected official) “has no administrative authority to refuse an order by this board.”
Underlying all the rhetoric was the strong sense that this is an issue that will be finally decided in court. Both Yamaguchi and Josiassen seem as determined to see their motion approved as Dolan and Houx are to defeat it. And while a lawsuit between board members (in this case, it would likely be between Dolan and Yamaguchi) would probably cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, both Yamaguchi and Josiassen said they’re not averse to litigation.
“If this thing has to be decided by the courts, then that’s the way it will have to be,” Josiassen said. “Maybe that’s the way it will end up.”
Beeler will cast the deciding swing vote on the board, and while he has historically voted with Yamaguchi and Josiassen, he made no bones about saying that he isn’t fully behind them on this issue.
“I don’t like what I think you’re doing here,” he told Josiassen, while Josiassen was trying to have a vote on the issue. “And I fully expect [the referendum on Plan 5] to be successful in March … but I don’t know if what [Yamaguchi] is trying to do is really illegal.”
Beeler admitted he couldn’t make a decision on Tuesday and asked to table the issue until next week. After the meeting, he said that he plans to talk to “as many people as possible” about the issue.
“This is a big deal," he said. "I want the right thing to be done."