posted: April 27, at 3:40pm | photos Art Olson
Waiting for the results
Art Olson | Avenida Primavera | posted April 28, 2010
On Tuesday morning in the City Hall Annex, a single “whoop” arose from an anxious audience watching the ballot tally for the Undergrounding Assessment district when the final Sunset District result showed up on the video projected spreadsheet. Sunset property owners had registered a majority protest with 51% of the assessment-weighted votes. With 90.5% of the properties casting ballots, 62 voted for and 67 voted against. Shortly thereafter the North Hills vote followed suit with a 57% assessment-weighted protest to the formation of their assessment district. With 87% of the properties casting ballots, 120 voted for and 159 voted against. A mixture of relief and disappointment infused the room, some people feeling that they had dodged a big financial bullet, and others lamenting their frustrated efforts to see Del Mar’s utilities undergrounded.
Counting the ballots
The public counting of ballots began at 10 am with city staff opening envelopes and sorting ballots by parcel number. Then the two districts’ results were tabulated in parallel and vote-by-vote the evolving tallies were projected onto two screens for the audience to keep track.
The ballot counting process was a continuation of the City Council’s meeting the evening before at which a number of assessment issues had been discussed. Since four of the five councilmembers live either in or adjacent to one or the other undergrounding district, essentially two different councils deliberated on the two districts. Crystal Crawford was the only member to sit on both. Several procedural issues were discussed, the first items deciding on if and how the city would handle voting on city owned property in the two districts. While at the beginning of both items councilmember Crawford introduced a motion for the city to abstain from voting, the results differed for the two districts. Councilmembers Filanc and Ernest agreed with Crawford to withhold city voting on the North Hills district, while Mosier and Hilliard opposed and passed a motion for the city to vote yes for the city’s Sunset parcel.
Audience at the count
Next, the Council opened a public hearing for objections and protests for the proposed assessments and for opinions on what percentage of “yes” votes would be compelling enough to move forward with the formation of the assessment districts. A large number of people spoke, with a significant majority opposing the assessments, faulting the process for fairness and for financial hardship reasons. Those who spoke in favor of forming the assessment districts cited the fact that utility undergrounding was a stated goal of the Community Plan, and that if the current effort failed, Del Mar would lose the opportunity to attain that goal in the foreseeable future. Nancy Ross presented an independent, neighborhood-based approach to undergrounding, giving as an example the Kalamath neighborhood, which accomplished the task privately. Ross’s financial analysis indicated that the process was less expensive than the current assessment district route, and it was less contentious among the neighbors involved.
Councilmember Crawford pointed out a few parcels in each district that appeared unduly burdened, being “peninsular” with utility lines on three sides. She suggested reducing their assessments by a percentage to relieve that burden. The city’s assessment engineer, Ernesto Aguilar, stated that he could not agree with those adjustments, since they would jeopardize the consistency of the application of the assessment methodology. Other sticky issues arose in the discussions regarding the need for notification of newly modified assessments after the ballots had already been cast. It was decided that since all late-arising modification would be a lowering of the assessment, the voting could proceed as scheduled. Another issue concerned those properties that had conditions of approval from DRB deliberations that required utility undergrounding from the street to the house. While there may be over 100 properties with these conditions imposed, the City Clerk, Mercedes Martin, stated that in the North Hills only17 parcels had covenants barring them from voting “no” on the formation of an undergrounding assessment district, and the Sunset District had only one such property.
When the vote came in the next morning with majority protests prevailing in both districts, all of these issues became moot, and the two “sub-Councils” were relieved of the thorny decision of what percentage would constitute a “substantial majority” to proceed with establishing Undergrounding Assessment Districts. In a brief follow-up meeting Tuesday evening, the Council officially abandoned the formation of both undergrounding assessment districts, putting the issue to rest for now. The Council’s post-mortem comments centered on problems with the assessment methodology, the diversity of Del Mar residents, and the advantages of carrying out the process to a vote of the people. All agreed that there are lessons to be learned from what was a divisive process for the community. That analysis will likely be a subject of conversation for some time to come.