A vote in the open | TheUnion.com

A vote in the open

With fire season in full force and several Nevada County homes and private lands already victims of blazes, the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District is asking property owners to pay more money to ensure the district is amply able to protect property.

The way the district is asking, however, means anyone – including fire district administrators and employees – can find out how someone else voted. When property owners recently received their mail-in ballots, they noticed their “yes” or “no” votes would be submitted with names and property parcel numbers directly on the ballots.

This unfamiliar way of holding an election has raised alarm from some property owners because the right to privacy is generally understood as a crucial element to a person’s right to vote.

Leery of government, some have said they fear an opposing vote could leave them vulnerable to some sort of retaliation.

“My son is a fireman. I know the firemen need equipment, so that is not my issue, but where is my guarantee that they don’t have a black list?” said resident Sue Ramey, who owns an empty property in the Consolidated district.

Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Chief Tim Fike said he considers the insinuation insulting.

“That is simply ludicrous and I simply won’t respond to it,” Fike said.

“Everything that we have done is open to the public. This is not a secret conspiracy.”

Regardless of whether residents believe their homes might be in danger if they do not send in a “yes” vote, the unfamiliarity of a public vote is making some residents such as Cascade Shores resident Karen Hatten question the lack of privacy.

“I don’t believe it is honest or ethical the way they presented the ballot, and I still have questions,” she said.

The process is legal and is not subject to California election code – as many residents who called the Nevada County Elections Office quickly learned. This is because it is specifically about a benefit that affects property.

“This is not an election in the traditional sense. For example, if you have more property, then your assessment is greater than someone else’s,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

This means a developed-property owner’s vote is also worth more.

The Howard Jarvis association was a key advocate in passing Propositions 13 and 218, which were meant to protect taxpayers from what they considered unnecessary taxes.

Coupal said that until Prop 218 was passed by voters in 1996, the only way property owners could vote against an assessment was to file a “protest ballot,” which were also public record. If you did not file a protest, then your property was counted as a “yes” vote.

The reason voters cannot simply fill out the personal information on the outer envelope like on a general election absentee ballot is because a history of voter fraud in such elections has lowered the priority of voter privacy, Coupal said.

Amy Roblyer – the project manager with the Pleasanton-based civil engineering firm hired to assist Consolidated with the election – said that if an auditor would come in to assess an anonymous election, there would be no way to validate the property owner votes. And unlike the general election and the County Elections Clerk, the fire district can be held responsible for a mis-vote, Roblyer said.

“We asked the auditor if they would be the repository so there wouldn’t be any suspicions that the fire district is going to be opening them as they come in,” Fike said.

Coupal said his organization would prefer fire districts put proposed assessments before all registered voters in the districts, instead of mailing ballots only to property owners.

“With (public property such as) a sidewalk, you can measure it by a linear foot. Lots of people never call the fire department, and so how do you determine the benefit to specific parcels of property?”

While Fike says the cost of either approach would be similar – about $17,000 – a fee can be more difficult to pass in a traditional election because it would require a two-thirds vote to pass. Also, it would mean that people not paying for the tax would be voting on it – something some residents may consider unfair.

Not all residents are concerned with their vote remaining hidden. La Barr Meadows resident Earl Reuter said he is more concerned there is no apparent expiration date on the assessment tax.

“I mean, how long is it good for?” the retired welder asked.

Former Supervisor Drew Bedwell said he and his wife, Ruth, received the mailer and promptly returned it with a favorable vote. Bedwell did note, however, his concern that increasing regulations may prove to be the end of volunteerism in the fire world.

Several community groups have joined Consolidated in rallying for the fire assessment’s approval. The Federation of Neighborhood Associations has endorsed the fee, saying its benefits are well worth the cost to property owners.

“For $89 a year, I call this an incredible bargain,” said Marty Pezzaglia, a federation representative and president of the Cement Hill Neighborhood Association.

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