The head of the campaign to cut off taxpayer funds for a passenger train system in Marin and Sonoma counties says there’s no way of knowing whether the will reach its mandated target by the Jan. 27 deadline.
Clay Mitchell, co-chair of Repeal SMART, said dozens of people — volunteers, paid helpers, as well as professional petitioners — are trying to get registered voters to yank the funding carpet out from under the Sonoma-Marin Area Transit system that is expected to start running on local tracks by 2015 or 2016. Repeal SMART wants to repeal Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax bump approved by more than two-thirds of voters in 2008. Measure Q money provides the commuter train system’s biggest chunk of cash.
Mitchell said Tuesday there were more than 150 people who had clipboards with petitions spread around the two counties and it was impossible to give an accurate count of how many signatures they had gathered. He said he’s optimistic they will reach the 15,000 signatures Repeal SMART believes it needs to succeed.
“I wish I could say how many, but we’re somewhere in the range we need … somewhere in the ballpark,” he said. “But we’re spread so thin between the counties that we don’t get the feedback as quickly as we’d hoped. We have a certain amount in hand, but we don’t know how many those people have gotten, so we can’t get a decent count.”
The required number of signatures is up for debate; Mitchell said he’s still unclear on whether it’s 15,000 or 40,000. Election officials are allowing the SMART board to determine how many signatures must be verified to force the ballot measure, but Mitchell said it’s clear in state law that the lower number should be permitted.
“We feel the SMART board won’t call for an election unless we meet the higher number,” Mitchell said. “If that’s the case, we’d have to take them to court. … You’d have one authority saying yes to the lower number and one saying no, and that doesn’t fly legally if you ask me.”
, the general manager of SMART noted that the train system is obligated to pay for more than $200 million in construction contracts already awarded, even if the repeal effort is successful.
Farhad Mansourian’s most adamant and urgent message is that construction firms that have been awarded contracts must be paid by law based on language in the United States and California constitutions, meaning taxpayers would be paying the bills for a train system whether it’s built or not.
“Absolutely, we will be responsible for fulfilling the agreement of the contracts,” Mansourian said. “If the repeal effort succeeds, we would have to go to the State Board of Equalization and submit a report, because they are going to want to know how we are going to repay our debts.”
The board would extend the life of Measure Q — beyond the original 20 years — for as long as it takes to pay off the contracted companies, Mansourian said.
The SMART chief said he repeatedly has confronted Mitchell and other repeal leaders with the question about what good the repeal campaign will bring to solving the region’s transportation problems. It’s a point made in a recent guest editorial written by leaders of the Sonoma County Alliance and Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
“They’re leading people to a dark tunnel,” Mansourian said. “I asked them, ‘The day after you have won, do you know what happens to the taxpayers’ money?’ and they say that’s not their issue. I say that well they’re leading people do will be pretty poisonous soon.”
Some of the Repeal SMART petitioners have been harassed at storefront locations as well. Novato resident Toni Shroyer said she was intimidated by a man outside of the store at Vintage Oaks shopping center and has heard first-hand accounts from other petitioners about verbal harassment at other locations.
On Wednesday, Shroyer circulated an e-mail that said in part, “I am asking you to speak out against anyone interfering/blocking with the democratic process, which threatens our democracy. Bullying, intimidation, name-calling or blocking is not appropriate and it is akin to third-world tactics. I am hoping the SMART Board does not condone this behavior by their supporters.”
Mitchell said confrontations have taken place in Sonoma County, too. He said a group met at a Rohnert Park union hall to go over ways to counteract the petitioners, and several people in Windsor got in an argument last weekend in front of a store.
“We’ve had some volunteers quit because of this, and we have had to pay people to come work for us for $1 per signature,” Mitchell said. “Even some of the paid professionals have quit, saying that people are infringing on their ability to make a living.”
Mitchell said having the SMART board agree to put a revised rail proposal before the voters would be the best option at this point. What voters approved in 2008 was a 70-mile line between Cloverdale and Larkspur, not the truncated system that’s in the works, he said.
SMART said the Santa Rosa-to-San Rafael route — estimated to cost more than $400 million — is just the first phase and that it has every intention on extending the line when funds are lined up. Even with the initial shorter line, more than 1,000 jobs are being created, SMART said.
But if it comes to a lawsuit, “If at all possible we would ask for expedited treatment because a compelling reason for public not to have this drawn out,” Mitchell said. “The last thing I want to do is file a lawsuit. The only people who really benefit from filing lawsuit are the lawyers, and that for me is really frustrating. Taking somebody to court is the last result, and that’s why we took initiative to get this initiative going.”
Mansourian said he agrees with Mitchell on the point about the attorneys. He predicted in August that the repeal effort would fail and called it “a waste of time.” On Thursday, he said he maintains that stance.
“If they were not desperate, why would not be paying money to collect signatures?” he said. “And what happened to their grassroots campaign?”