Save The Yard group announces new initiative effort for downtown Antioch event center, accuses city officials of obstructionFriday, August 5th, 2016
By Allen Payton
In a press release issued Thursday, August 4, 2016, the Antioch residents who support a park and event center on the old lumber company lot in Antioch’s downtown, announced a second effort after their first initiative failed to get enough valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
They are “testing the adage that ‘you can’t fight city hall’” the release states and are calling the historical Antioch Lumber Company yard site “ground zero” in that fight. The 1.25 acre parcel is situated between E Street, West 2nd and West 3rd Streets, in Antioch’s downtown, also known as Rivertown. Overlooking the San Joaquin River, the vacant parcel was utilized as a lumberyard for decades. It is one of nine city-owned parcels the council is considering selling and gave direction to City Manager Steve Duran to negotiate with developer City Ventures in a closed session, in August, 2015. (See the related article, here).
Since the early 1990’s, the release continues, citizens have advanced various park-like proposals for this parcel, the most current envisioning a town square suitable for 4th of July celebrations, car shows, summer concerts in the park, farmers’ markets, Holiday De-Lites, Rivertown Jamboree, movie nights, dog shows and other community events including farm-to-fork, wine tasting, and multicultural affairs, the press release explained.
In February, 2015, Rivertown residents met with Duran, to share their vision for this parcel.
“To their shock and surprise, Duran having listened for only a short time, responded that this parcel would never be used as a park,” according to the release. “He explained that instead, it would be utilized as high density housing, notwithstanding there are already 840 residences within one-quarter mile of the Rivertown business center, that the city’s own consulting firm said the proposed residential project was infeasible, and that there is precious little space for community events. People in attendance were stunned.”
“Since that meeting, interested citizens have attempted to meet with city officials to explore options, to no avail,” the release claims. “When these overtures fell on deaf ears and Antioch city officials began meeting with City Ventures, a developer, to discuss construction of high density housing, the ‘Save Our Yard’ movement was born. This movement eventually spawned the Town Square Initiative which was a proposed ballot measure intended to allow the citizens of Antioch to determine how this site will be used.”
In an email response, Duran stated, “I don’t think I was quite so blunt; but I recollect that I tried to explain why I think the site was zoned residential under the 2003 General Plan and why no staff or consultant has ever recommended the City build an event center three blocks from an event center on the City’s best housing site.”
“Yesterday’s press release to which you refer also asserted that the City wouldn’t meet with her to discuss the proposal dated 10/28/14 for a park & event center that on the old lumber yard site,” Duran continued. “In fact, our real estate consultant and I met with Joy Motts and Wayne Harrison on Friday, February 20th to review and discuss their proposal for the vacant dirt lot that was once the site of the Antioch Lumber Company yard and warehouse. At that meeting, we requested additional information from them, which they never provided and I subsequently offered to meet with them again. They never responded to that request either. Mayor Harper and I had met with representatives from their group previously in this regard.”
In the press release the group claims that “the Town Square Initiative has met with unprecedented opposition by city officials” and specifically accuse Antioch City Clerk Arne Simonsen, the city’s election official, of being “a vocal critic of the Town Square Initiative,” and creating “one obstacle after another in his apparent attempt to keep this initiative off of the ballot.”
They stated “first, he rejected the petition itself because the language of the city attorney’s summary was modified at the proponents’ request, even though the city attorney had agreed to the modifications. Second, he gave the proponents the wrong information concerning when the initiative had to be turned in. Third, he refused to accept forty or fifty voter registration affidavits from initiative proponents on behalf of people who had signed their petition, effectively nullifying these otherwise valid signatures.”
“I handled their initiative petition the same professional way I handled the one from Lamar Thorpe for the card room initiative,” he stated. “When I received the notice of intent to circulate, from proponent Jim Lanter, I immediately got it to then-interim City Attorney Derek Cole. He has up to 15 days to get it back to me. He took almost the entire time. When he gave me his summary, I got it to Jim Lanter. Then their next step was to publish it in a newspaper of general circulation. Once it was published they had 10 days to bring into me proof of publication. When they brought it in, I sat down and compared what I was given by the city attorney with what they published in the newspaper. They were not the same. So when I saw they were not the same, I called Derek Cole and said “hey, I have a problem.” He said, “well I got a call from Dave LarsEn, who wasn’t happy with some of the verbiage in the title and summary that Derek had submitted to me. Between the two of them, Cole agreed to some changes which he gave to Dave Larsen, and that’s what was published. There’s only one problem. According to the elections code, there’s only one way to change the title and summary once it’s been submitted by the City Attorney to the City Clerk. They have 10 days to submit to the court a writ of mandate to seek changes in the title and summary.
Derek Cole wanted me to allow the change. I told him “you were speaking with the proponents’ attorney on a side bar and didn’t include me in the conversation.”
“I contacted some master municipal clerks and asked them what to do,” Simonsen continued. “They told me, the only way to change it was the writ of mandate, because the notice of intent was not the same and that terminates their initiative process, because they did not go through the proper state Elections Code procedure.”
“Both attorneys failed to follow the Elections Code,” he stated.
As to the second accusation, Simonsen provided an explanation.
“They have 180 days from the publication of their notice of intent,” he said. “That would have brought them into early September. Then it would be on a following General Election. But they wanted to make this year’s General Election in November. So they had a shortened time frame of four months instead of six months to gather their signatures.”
“Normally, the County Elections Office takes less than 28 days to do the signature verification, which is what I told them,” Simonsen continued. “But, the Elections Code says they have up to 30 business days to perform the verification.”
“Dave Larsen, their attorney, saw that,” he stated. “I gave him a hard copy of the section of the Elections Code with all that in it. Why didn’t he look that up and advise them?”
Regarding the claim that Simonsen rejected voter registration forms, he said “I didn’t reject them. I told them I cannot accept them. The voter registration forms must be mailed or delivered to the County Elections office.”
Elections Code section 2102 states “the affidavit of registration shall be mailed or delivered to the County Elections official.”
“I didn’t look at the voter registration forms,” Simonsen continued. “They were supposed to be mailed or delivered within three days. Why, when I told them I couldn’t accept them, didn’t they deliver them to the County Elections Office?”
What actually caused the initiative effort to fail to make the November ballot, was that the County Elections Office determined there weren’t enough valid signatures submitted, after performing a sampling process. (Please see the related article here).
When reached for comment, initiative proponent Jim Lanter referred comments to Larsen and another leader of the effort, Joy Motts.
Larsen, who worked as a city attorney for 30 years, responded to Simonsen’s accusations.
“When you look [at the Elections Code], the definition of county elections officer it includes city clerks,” Larsen continued.
In response to Simonen’s statement that the attorneys didn’t follow the law regarding the ballot summary language, Larsen disagreed.
“The two seasoned city attorneys agreed, that since the city attorney is tasked with writing the summary and title, the city attorney can change his mind,” he stated. “When the proponents’ attorney calls and asks to make changes…it’s ridiculous to say the city attorney can’t change the ballot summary. We can certainly do that short of a writ of mandate. You only go to court when the two parties can’t agree on something.”
“You always error on the side of allowing the citizens to be heard,” Larsen added. “The idea that you have to go to court if the two parties are agreeable is ridiculous.”
Motts Claims Obstruction
When reached for comment Motts shared her experience and perspective of what occurred.
“I think it’s important for people to know of the obstructions we ran into along the way,” she stated. “We had an expectation that Arne works for the people and that he would provide us with accurate information, because he’s our elections officer. He doesn’t really work for the city.”
When asked if she approved the press release before Larsen sent it out, she said, “Yes.”
She also shared what County Clerk Joe Canciamilla told her.
“Joe told us that Arne should have accepted those forms,” she said. “He explained that many times initiative petitions come in with voter registrations forms.”
“Arne is an elections officer. Per the law he is obligated to accept those,” Motts stated. “The same day we turned in the petitions, we also picked up the registration cards from the signature gatherers. They handed 30 or 40 originals, plus 75 to 100 copies. They said ‘turn those in with the petitions’ because they’ll accept those.”
“Arne said he wouldn’t accept them and made some comment about if they weren’t registered the day they signed, they weren’t valid. But, that’s not true,” Motts stated. “If they signed the day they filled out their voter registration card, they’re valid.”
When asked what happened to the registration forms, she responded, “We immediately left [Simonsen’s office] and mailed the voter registration forms to the County Elections Office. The originals for the 75 to 100 copies had already been mailed in, but we didn’t know when.”
“Arne inserted himself in the process and made us stop the process and pay another $200,” Motts added. “The deadline [Arne gave us] probably messed us up more than anything.”
The count took less than either the 30 business days allowed or 28 calendar days, as estimated by Simonsen.
Motts said the information Simonsen provided the group didn’t show anything about the 30 business days the County Elections Office could take to count the signatures.
In a May 24th email from Simonsen to Motts, he wrote “you would have to submit your papers by mid July,” and attached a form showing the key dates for the November election. However, the form does not explain the 30 business days that the County Elections Office had to count the signatures.
“The way I found out was I just happened to call the county with questions about the validation process,” she continued. “This was toward the end of June. This guy said we have 12 initiatives in front of you. That’s when we went into a panic.”
That’s when Larsen sent his letter the new Antioch City Attorney. Ltr to City Atty re Petition
“That cost us $250 an hour, a whole bunch of money,” said Motts. “We reached out to Supervisor Federal Glover and Joe Canciamilla, to help expedite the process.”
Motts admitted that even had Simonsen accepted the additional voter registration forms that they might not have had enough valid signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot.
“Joe also told us that based on the random sampling that even if we had those registration forms, that the probability would have been that we would have failed to have the required signatures,” she continued. “So I don’t know.”
When asked about the claims by the group regarding Simonsen not accepting the voter registration forms, Canciamilla offered an explanation.
“We’ve had 10 petitions from various cities. Every city clerk has turned in voter registration forms with those petitions except Antioch,” Canciamilla state. “I’m not saying what Arne did was wrong, but that’s what we get normally when they send along the petitions.”
“Arne is the elections official for Antioch,” he continued. “As I told the proponents, we aren’t the arbitrator. Unless we’re asked for advice, we don’t proffer it. Local measures are the city clerks’ call. I advised the proponents that the proper place for challenging is with the superior court. They take up a writ and put it before a judge. That is the mechanism for challenging.”
“We’re Not Going Away”
Asked why they were making this a personal thing and attacking Simonsen, Motts responded.
“We don’t have time to go after Arne, but we’re not going away,” she said. “We just want people to know there was obstruction all along the way. It cost all of us money and heartache, and maybe the ability to get it done.”
Nevertheless, the group’s press release states “The fight has only just begun.” They also have committed that “a new petition will be circulated shortly; a special election will be sought; and in the meantime, proponents will be tracking the legality of each step the city takes.”
“In short, the verdict may be out concerning whether one can really fight city hall, but in this case, every effort is being made to do exactly that,” the release concludes.
For more information on the group’s effort, visit www.savetheyard.com.