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County OKs clerk to verify PDH petition signatures

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

County Clerk Kathy Williams brought the Plumas District Hospital tax cap issue before the Board of Supervisors March 16 as an "urgency item."

She said the resolution passed by the PDH board appointing the county clerk as its elections official and asking that her office inspect voter signatures on the tax limitation initiative and "if proper" certify the petition, had been brought to her attention on the previous Friday - too late to get it on the supervisors' agenda.

She consulted Interim County Council Brian Morris, who determined there was sufficient cause to bring the resolution before the board at this time.

At issue was the fact a special district was requesting the county to inspect the voter signatures and to certify the initiative petition. While Williams maintained the county often runs elections for special districts, she had never been asked only to certify a petition before.

In either case, though, the county needs to OK funds in advance to pay the county clerk's office for its work. The district requesting the county to act as its elections official then reimburses the county.

In this case, chairwoman Sherrie Thrall said, "I'd rather they paid us up front, actually."

County Administrative Officer Jack Ingstad added to that his request for a contract between the county and PDH.

While Williams said this wasn't usual practice, as the resolution presented by a special district was typically enough, Ingstad said, "In the event - I know they're not going to do this - but in the event someone doesn't pay us, then we have a legal document that we can go to court with."

Williams also told the board that the cost of counting signatures and certifying the petition would likely be less than $1,000, which is the deposit that she usually requests up front. In this case, then, PDH would effectively be paying services in advance.

Board member Robert Meacher was at pains to make certain this was a valid "urgency item," since he didn't want the board to step into a minefield. "I don't want ... to make it appear that the board is somehow weighing in with some sort of favoritism towards initiative proponents or the (hospital) district, because the last thing we want to do is interfere with the district's work or the proponents (of the initiative)."

Williams explained her request was based on the required time to conduct an election. "The elections code states specifically that the proponents file signed petitions with the district's election official within 180 days from the day of the publication of the notice of intention. That notice of intention was Nov. 25, 2009, so we're still within that 180 days."

However, since the supervisors were not scheduled to meet again until the first week of April, if Williams waited until then to get their OK to proceed, she was in danger of missing some prescribed deadlines.

Williams also said the district could opt for either a mail ballot election in August, which would cost the district approximately $16,000 (the cost of the original Measure A election to PDH), or it could wait until the November general election, which would actually cost more.

Though the district would only be responsible for a portion of the election total, a general election is much more costly.

One of the tax limitation initiative proponents, attorney Robert Zernich, said he felt the hospital was obstructing the elections process by requesting only petition certification by the county, rather than asking the county to run the whole election at this time.

He suggested the language of the hospital district's resolution - which reads: "That the Plumas Hospital District hereby appoints the Plumas County Clerk as its Election Official to process the petition ... including, but not limited to, inspecting the voter signatures and, if proper, certification of such initiative petition" - could be read as allowing the county clerk to conduct the entire election.

The board refused to be put in the position of interpreting the meaning of the petition's wording.

Supervisor Lori Simpson then asked the county clerk if she had ever done "half of it" before.

"No," answered Williams.

"So, is this legal?" asked Simpson.

"That would be a question for counsel," answered Williams.

Finally, Zernich suggested to the board the situation would have larger fiscal impact on the county, because "taxpayers will - myself - I'll never vote yes on another bond initiative ever again."

Contacted Monday, March 22, Williams said she had sent the contract to PDH the previous Wednesday and Richard Hathaway, PDH's chief executive officer, had personally returned the signed contract and a check Friday, March 19.


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