Group Postponing Government Reform Effort Until 2020

A citizens committee that had earlier this year initiated a petition drive to qualify a countywide initiative for the November ballot aimed at reducing members of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to part time status and imposing on that panel’s members a commensurate reduction in pay has elected to suspend that effort until 2020.
The Red Brennan Group, which is named after the late government reform advocate who qualified a similar initiative for the ballot in 2012, took up the reform gauntlet last October, thirteen months ahead of the November 2018 election, giving its members what they anticipated would be sufficient lead time to qualify a comprehensive government reform package for the ballot. They had hoped to get two initiatives with a variety of local government reform provisions before the county’s voters for consideration this year. From the outset, however, obstacles strewn in the group’s path by county officials resulted in complications and delays that have led to them putting the initiative process on hold.
Dubbed by the reform advocates as the “Leadership Accountability Initiative,” the first measure included a variety of features designed to constrain local government’s access to resources, and reduce the expanding girth of county government. The initiative called for transforming the county supervisors’ positions to part time and dispensing with the position of county chief executive officer (CEO) by reinstating the position of county administrative officer as the county’s highest ranking staff member. This proposed reform was aimed at undoing action taken by the county in 2010, by which the CEO position was instituted, installing in its holder wide-ranging autonomy over key elements of the county’s governmental function. The CEO’s employment contract ultimately resulted in a yearly compensation package exceeding $560,000. Further, the agreement conferred upon the CEO a so-called superbonus, which provided job protection that prevented his or her dismissal from being effectuated by a simple 3-2 majority of the board and required nothing less than a 4-to-1 vote to terminate the contract. The CEO was also given absolute autonomy over all county department heads, in the form of authority to hire and fire them without board approval.
Perceiving an increasing danger of a highly compensated “ruling class,” the Red Brennan Group framed its initiative to further constrain the county bureaucracy by adjusting compensation for those in county elected office. The initiative pegged compensation of elected officials – supervisors, sheriff, district attorney, treasurer/auditor/controller and assessor – to a multiple of the median family income in the region, and eliminated further accrual of retirement benefits by elected officials. The first initiative further limited the annual budget for support staff to each member of the board of supervisors to no more than five times an individual supervisor’s annual compensation.
Finally, in an effort to restrict the increasing bloat within the county’s governmental structure, the initiative sought to place a per capita limit on the number of county employees. In 2010, the county had one employee for every 108 residents. By 2016 this ratio decreased to one employee for every 95 residents, such that San Bernardino County had joined the ranks of large California counties with the most numerous per capita/inefficient workforces. In the 2016 analysis, both Orange and San Diego counties required just one employee for every 160-plus residents. Recognizing the requirement to ensure adequate law enforcement resources, the initiative’s framers required that in the county’s unincorporated areas there would be no fewer than one sheriff’s deputy for every 1,398 residents.
The second initiative simply required the supervisors to use every legal means available to ensure county government employee pay and benefits were equal to private industry pay and benefits in the San Bernardino County region.
After the initiative proposals were submitted to the county’s stable of in-house lawyers, known as the office of county counsel, the county sued the initiative’s proponents, claiming the initiatives violated the California Constitution, the current legal authority of the supervisors, and the single subject rule for initiatives. In its lawsuit, the county contended it therefore should not be required to complete its ministerial duty of providing a ballot title and summary for the initiative proposals.
In response, the proponents filed a countersuit, seeking a writ of mandamus asking the court to order the county and the office of county counsel to write a ballot title and summary so signature gathering for the initiative could proceed. The Red Brennan Group then submitted seven further separate initiatives that, in essence, broke down the two original initiatives to overcome the county’s contention that the initiatives violated the single subject rule. This resulted in the county suing the Red Brennan Group with regard to four of the seven new initiative proposals. Further legal sparring ensued, which resulted in the Red Brennan Group submitting thirteen initiatives in total.
Contending that several of the initiatives as proposed by the Red Brennan Group were either prohibited by law or the California Constitution, the county outright refused to provide the ballot title and summary for all but two of the 13 initiatives. This prevented the Red Brennan Group from moving ahead with the bulk of the reforms it was pursuing through the initiative qualification process, the next major step of which is to gather the requisite signatures. Of the two initiatives deemed constitutional by county counsel, one initiative called for reducing the supervisors to part time status and providing a commensurate reduction in pay and benefits. The second sought to impose a one-term limit on the supervisors, preventing each member of the board from serving more than four years in that capacity. The Red Brennan Group again petitioned for a writ of mandamus. On January 18, 2018 Superior Court Judge David Cohn denied the request, ruling, essentially, that the county was justified in refusing to provide the requested titles and summaries on initiatives that county counsel opined were unconstitutional.
Believing the county’s objections to the original initiatives along with the objections to the follow-up submissions to be invalid and Cohn’s ruling to be in error, the group appealed the ruling to the Fourth District Court of Appeals. All appeals, however, are heard on the appellate court’s timetable, meaning that it might take a year or more for the matter to be resolved. Nevertheless, the Red Brennan Group was still seeking to proceed with the reform effort it had begun in October 2017, and get whatever reasonable facsimile or remnant of the initiative it could on the November 2018 ballot. Accordingly, in February the reform advocates pressed ahead with an effort to gather enough signatures to qualify a single initiative for the November ballot. That initiative called for altering the San Bernardino County Charter to designate the post of county supervisor as a part-time position, with pay limited to no more than $5,000 per month. The initiative called for allowing supervisors to hold full-time employment separate from their duties as county supervisors.
At present, county supervisors receive $151,193.17 per year in salary, $24,300.12 in what is termed “other pay,” and $94,138.60 in benefits for a total annual compensation package of $269,631.89.
To qualify the initiative for the ballot, petitioners needed to gather 28,688 valid signatures of the county’s registered voters. Professional signature gathering organizations indicated approximately 42,000 raw signatures would be needed to ensure the proper amount of valid signatures. Additionally, those advising the proponents indicated that a realistic deadline to qualify an initiative for the November ballot would be, effectively, the beginning of May. That meant the petition gatherers, already fighting the calendar as a consequence of the four months lost during the legal go-round with the county, would need to achieve a goal of gathering roughly 1,000 signatures a day over a 50 day campaign to reach the target, a daunting task but one The Red Brennan Group was willing to take on.
According to Tom Murphy, the spokesman for the Red Brennan Group, “We were getting a positive response and a fair number of signatures. But after about two-and-a-half or three weeks into it we looked at the numbers we needed versus the time we had to get them and reality suggested we weren’t going to make it. It’s as if we had to run a timed marathon and it looked like we would get to mile 22 and the race would be called. We said at that point, ‘Let’s conserve our resources and shift our efforts to 2020.’ We’re still tied up in the courts with our challenge of the ruling by Judge Cohn, which relates to what we believe are the strongest and most compelling elements of what we are trying to do. We are also heading back to Superior Court. We’ll let those cases play out and we’re now looking at 2020. We’re working through ideas we think – ones we hope – will not be put in county counsel’s arbitrary ‘constitutional penalty box.’”
Murphy took issue with county counsel’s refusal to simply analyze the submitted initiative proposals and prepare a ballot title summary for them.
“This was a very curious approach to county counsel’s ministerial duty as required by California law,” Murphy said. “By way of comparison, Xavier Becerra, the state Attorney General, received a request in August 2017 to prepare a ballot title and summary for an initiative adding language to the state’s constitution classifying abortion as first-degree murder. The attorney general dutifully performed his ministerial duty and provided a ballot title and summary to the proponents of the initiative. This specific initiative never gained sufficient signatures, but the point is germane. It appears county counsel’s attorneys need some training from the state on the definition and requirements involved in a ‘ministerial duty.’”
Murphy said being blocked by the county has been frustrating, but the disappointment has not doused the intensity of the reform advocates. Rather, he said, what he termed the county’s tactics of obfuscation and delay used against the Red Brennan Group have increased its members’ determination. He said the time from now until 2020 will not be squandered, and the reform advocates have already begun and will continue to use the opportunities available to them to make the case for local government reform. “We have started a radio talk show on KCAA out of Loma Linda that is essentially dedicated to county government and politics,” Murphy said. “From 2:00 to 3:00 PM every Sunday, our radio program, youTurn, will give everyone who is listening a clear picture of how the ruling class is spending our tax money and governing the county. If anything, giving us two years to fill in the background of what our movement is about will strengthen us. As an additional benefit to the community, any listener that dials into youTurn radio during the live show will have an opportunity to win a donation to their favorite charity operating in the Inland Empire. So set those cell phone reminders to go off at 1:55 PM on Sunday afternoon and turn your radio dial to 1050 AM, or 102.3 or 106.5 FM. If you are unable to pick up the radio signal, the show is broadcast live at”
-Mark Gutglueck

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