The California Supreme Court today upheld a 2007 vote by property owners in the Ross Valley area of Marin County to approve a special fee to pay for flood control.
The fee, averaging $125 per parcel per year, was enacted by the Marin County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in 2007 after it was approved by a narrow majority of property owners.
The fee is expected to provide $2.2 million per year for 20 years to control chronic flooding from creeks in the Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo and Fairfax areas.
It was approved by a mail-in vote of 3,208 to 3,143 by property owners in the area.
Another 1,708 ballots were invalidated, mostly because voters failed to sign them.
A San Anselmo lawyer, Ford Greene, claimed in a Marin County Superior Court lawsuit that the election violated the state constitutional right to secret voting because the property owners had to sign their ballots.
But the state high court, in a ruling issued in San Francisco, unanimously rejected that claim.
The court said the voting procedure complied with the requirements of Proposition 218, a 1996 voter initiative that governs votes by property owners on special fees.
The panel said special fee votes are not entitled to the same degree of secrecy as other types of elections.
Justice Carlos Moreno wrote that while “a certain measure” of secrecy is required by the initiative and later laws, the wording of Proposition 218 itself provides that property owners must identify themselves and their parcels.
Moreno wrote, “We therefore conclude that (Proposition 218) authorizes government agencies to require property owners to identify themselves and their parcels on the ballot on which they indicate how they are casting their votes.”
The panel said it was not deciding in this ruling how much secrecy is required, because in this case the district kept the ballots secret before they were tabulated and would have allowed public inspection of the ballots afterward only upon a court order.
Michael Colantuono, a lawyer who represented the water district, said, “This is a complete victory for the water district.
“The district can now start spending the money to provide flood protection that property owners asked them to provide several years ago,” Colantuono said.
Greene issued a statement saying, “Today’s decision is as fatal to democracy as the toxic goo in the Gulf is to brown pelicans.”
The ruling overturns a 2009 state Court of Appeal decision that invalidated the election.
The high court reinstated a 2007 judgment in which Marin County Superior Court Lynn Duryee dismissed the lawsuit and upheld the fee.
Proposition 218, a state constitutional amendment, was approved by voters to close perceived loopholes in Proposition 13, a 1978 voter initiative that restricted property taxes.