Several officers of the LeConte Neighborhood Association have accused one of their own members of misrepresenting the group’s positions on ballot arguments set to be delivered to Berkeley voters.
They say Jim Hultman exploited lax state election laws and, without their permission, signed the group up to ballot arguments opposing five controversial initiatives.
Most egregious, said LeConte President Karl Reeh, is that the group is listed as opposing a proposal to publicly finance city elections and a library tax. Reeh said board members never voted on campaign finance and, although they oppose the library tax, some members objected to harsh language in the ballot argument.
The rebuttal Hultman signed on behalf of LeConte against the library tax charges that the venerable institution is mismanaged.
“He had no authority to say that on our behalf,” said LeConte Secretary Patti Dacey. “I read the library argument and I was appalled. I like the way the library is managed.”
Hultman, however, insists he did nothing wrong and contends the neighborhood backlash is being orchestrated from City Hall where politicians are especially protective of the initiative to publicly finance elections.
“The mayor is putting pressure on them to get our name off the ballot argument,” he said. “Public campaign financing is his baby and he can’t stand that his own neighborhood group opposes it.”
Reeh said that the mayor’s office has not contacted the group since it appeared as an opponent to campaign finance reform.
Much to the displeasure of neighborhood groups, the city is seeking four tax measures that would raise an estimated $8 million to help plug projected budget deficits in its general fund and special funds including those for libraries and emergency medical services. Publicly financing city elections would pluck an estimated $500,000 a year from the city’s general fund, but isn’t officially a tax.
Hultman, who sits on the LeConte board but isn’t an elected officer, was one of several members of neighborhood groups to sign ballot arguments both as individuals and on behalf of their organizations.
As part of its fight against new city taxes and spending programs, the Berkeley Alliance of Neighborhood Associations (BANA) has urged neighborhood groups to depart from past tradition in which neighborhood leaders signed ballot arguments as individuals and instead take a united stand.
Not only does it send a stronger message of neighborhood opposition to city tax hikes, but procedurally it’s very easy.
To assign himself as LeConte’s official spokesperson, all Hultman had to do was check a box that he was signing on behalf of a group, and then sign a separate consent form that he was a “principal” of the group. No proof of his standing with the group or outside verification was required.
“It seems anybody can sign something on behalf of anybody. That’s pretty outrageous,” said Dacey, who along with Reeh and LeConte board member Rob Wrenn requested that City Clerk Sherry Kelly remove LeConte from the contested ballot arguments.
Wrenn sent an e-mail to Kelly’s office with copies sent to Cisco DeVries, Mayor Bates’ chief of staff, and councilmembers Linda Maio and Dona Spring, sparking claims from Hultman and others that politicians were pressuring LeConte leaders to backtrack from their opposition to public campaign financing, a charge rejected by the mayor’s office.
“We were not involved in this discussion with LeConte,” said DeVries, who was out of the country on vacation when the e-mails were sent.
Councilmember Dona Spring challenged all of the ballot arguments with neighborhood or block group endorsements.
“I don't believe that very many of these block groups or neighborhoods actually took positions on the ballot measures,” she wrote in an e-mail to Kelly.
But City Clerk Kelly, in consultation with the city attorney’s office, determined state law gave her no power to review the matter. The election code, she said, only requires that someone signing a ballot argument on behalf of a group be “a principal” but doesn’t define the term.
“I have to take their word for it,” Kelly said. “Someone else has to challenge them.”
State election law allows a 10-day window for legal challenges to ballot arguments, but Reeh said by the time LeConte learned of its right to sue, it didn’t have enough time or will to mount a challenge.
Hultman, however, insisted he would have prevailed in court. Given just two days to conduct a vote in time to be included on ballot arguments, he forwarded an e-mail from BANA asking for a vote on the tax measures, in which the measure to publicly finance campaigns was also included.
“Everyone came back opposed to everything,” he said. “Public financing was included. It’s a tax, it’s coming out of the general fund.”
Although it’s shrouded in controversy, the rushed Internet vote taken by the LeConte board—their standard practice when time restraints prevent a face-to-face meeting—appears to have been among the most democratic among neighborhood groups that went on record opposing some of the tax hikes.
Greg Harper, head of the Southwest Berkeley’s Stanton Street Neighborhood Association, which is listed on the ballot argument opposing the library tax, said he never officially polled his members. “My neighbors trust me to act for them. We don’t get together,” he said.
Claremont-Elmwood Neighborhood Association (CENA) board member Mort McDonald, said his group didn’t take a formal vote either, though he added CENA president Dean Metzger had asked members if anyone was opposed to joining BANA against the tax hikes.