Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fraud alleged in Rincon sewer vote


Ventura County district attorneys and election officials are investigating allegations of voter fraud in a recent election concerning the annexation of the Rincon Point community to the Carpinteria Sanitary District.
Proponents of the annexation, those in favor of switching from septic to sewer systems for homes near the popular surf spot, alleged some who voted in the election don’t legally reside at Rincon Point.

Fred Woocher, a well-known election law attorney representing Heal the Ocean and a group of Rincon homeowners, filed challenges to 19 votes cast in Tuesday’s mail-ballot election, alleging those voters registered at homes near Rincon solely for the purpose of tipping the balance against sewer conversion.
He said one address on Puesta del Sol had 14 people register as voters in a short period of time last winter, many with prior voter registrations in other counties.
“All of a sudden these people showed up as registered at this address,” Woocher said by phone from his Santa Monica office. “…I’ve been doing election law for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
In addition to the 19 votes challenged by Woocher, another ballot has been questioned on the grounds that its signature does not match the one on file in the Ventura County elections office.
Wendy Macfarlane, a Ventura County deputy district attorney, confirmed she is investigating the matter, but could not release further details.
“We’re looking into the ones we were notified about,” she said. “I would imagine it’s the same 20 that were challenged. That’s not to say everyone will turn out to be a problem.”
She said Woocher notified the district attorney’s office in March with concerns about recent voter registrations at Rincon Point and she opened her investigation around that time.
Ventura County elections officials are also investigating the disputed ballots. Jim Becker, the assistant county clerk and recorder, said he is in the process of reviewing evidence submitted by Woocher and checking it against voter registration information.
With just 28 days to certify the election results, Becker said he wants to get the matter cleared up in the next week or two.
“We want to resolve the 20 challenges,” he said. “…If the challenge is upheld, then that mail ballot would not be opened and that vote would not be counted in the results.”
On Tuesday, approximately 150 people sent in ballots during the election, which was conducted by Santa Barbara County elections officials. Among the unchallenged votes, 73 are in favor of annexation and 59 are against, said Billie Alvarez, the county’s elections division manager.
With a 14-vote difference, the 20 challenged ballots can sway the decision in either direction.
All of the disputed ballots are on the Ventura County side of Rincon Point, leaving it up to Ventura officials to sort out the matter.
Several of those opposed to sewers said every person who voted against the annexation has a vested interest in the community and a valid voter registration.
Greg Donlon, who lives at a home in the 8000 block of Puesta del Sol with his mother, said the challenges to voter participation are nearing the level of harassment.
“According to the legal experts that we’ve talked to, if somebody has an interest in the house and have their domicile there, it’s their right to vote,” he said.
Woocher alleged 14 relatives and friends of Donlon registered as voters at the Rincon Point home, many with other homes in counties as far away as the Bay Area.
He cited sections of the Election Code stating that a person’s residence for voting purposes is their “domicile,” their fixed habitation where they have the intention of remaining.
“You can’t say, yeah, I consider that my home because I go there a couple weekends a year,” Woocher said. “Your home is determined by a variety of factors. Your intent is important, but it’s not determinative.”
Reached at a home in Salinas, Calif., Timothy Donlon, one of the voters challenged by Woocher, said he considers his home to be the one at Rincon Point.
“We were raised there,” he said. “We have a vested interest in it and any financial situations that develop around the home. … I live there part-time and we have a vested interest in any financial things that happen.”
When asked how much time he spends at the Rincon home, he said approximately two to three months per year.
“We’re down there occasionally and we do consider it our home,” he said.
Messages left for other voters challenged by Woocher were not returned as of press time.
Billy Taylor, an outspoken critic of the sewer conversion, said challenges brought by Woocher and Heal the Ocean are not legitimate and constitute an attempt to deny voters their rights.
“I think they’ve done everything they can and are doing everything that they can to win an election,” he said. “It’s not above them to challenge people’s voting rights.”
When asked if he knew for sure that any disputed voters had valid registrations, Taylor replied, “Absolutely,” but declined to name any in particular.
“I know some of them as my neighbors and some of them I don’t,” he said. “…It’s too sensitive for me to mention any names.”
Of concern to Donlon, Taylor and others is a majority decision by homeowners at Rincon Point and three other small communities to join the Carpinteria Sanitary District — effectively doing away with septic systems and switching to sewer lines, which would cost an estimated $88,000 per homeowner.
The proposal to make that switch has been nearly 10 years in the works, launched in 1998 by Heal the Ocean after a group of surfers approached the environmental nonprofit complaining about the water quality at Rincon.
“They came to me and said, help, help, we’re swimming in sewage down here,” said Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean.
She said septic tanks at homes along Rincon Point, Sandyland Cove, Sand Point Road and Padaro Lane are contributing to the polluted seawater and cited support from state and local governmental officials for the project, including the State Water Resources Control Board, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and Santa Barbara County Environmental Health.
“It’s one of the most polluted beaches the federal and state governments are mandated to clean up,” Hauser said.
A vocal group of homeowners, particularly at Rincon Point, decried the claim that septic tanks have anything to do with poor water quality and have fought the swap to sewer since its conception, challenging environmental impact reports and questioning ballots cast in an October 2007 vote on the issue.
“The beach doesn’t test dirty,” Greg Donlon said. “If it did, I wouldn’t surf in it.”
Donlon and his family surf there regularly, he said, and have been told by officials that the only time the water tests positive for fecal matter is when rain washes waste down creeks and into the ocean.
“We don’t think the Carpinteria Sanitary District does anything about caffeine, vitamins, chemicals and other things that are dumped out into the bay,” Donlon said. “…I’m just after the truth, myself. There’s no guarantee the bay will be any cleaner.”
Nonetheless, after a divisive election run-up peppered with personal attacks, a majority of homeowners in all four communities voted in favor of sewer conversion in October 2007. Rincon Point was by far the most contentious, with 41 votes for the switch and 31 against.
But despite that vote of approval, the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, had to officially approve the annexation before Carpinteria Sanitary District officials could sell financing bonds and launch construction.
Bob Braitman, executive officer of LAFCO, admitted to goofing on the initial hearing in October, failing to publicly notice the meeting in Ventura County or send out mailed notices to affected Ventura residents.
At a second, properly noticed hearing in December, more than 25 percent of Rincon Point residents protested the annexation, forcing an election by mail ballot. Woocher noted that many of the newly registered voters made their switch in the days leading up to that hearing.
After considering a challenge to the LAFCO hearing, Woocher and Hauser decided it would be less costly and easier to let it go to Tuesday’s vote and challenge any voters who had recently registered.
However, on March 14, Woocher sent a letter to Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten, along with elections officials and the individuals he believed to be planning to vote illegally in the April election, describing his concern.
“We warned them about this,” Woocher said. “This is a serious matter. These people could go to jail for this.”
Regardless of Woocher’s warning, he said 19 people appear to have voted illegally, pointing out many have mortgages naming properties in Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Los Angeles, Monterey, Orange and Santa Barbara counties as their primary residence.
He also said one voter listed a cell phone issued in West Palm Beach, Fla., on a voter registration form and questioned another voter’s status as an American citizen, noting she appeared to have been born and lived in Australia until at least 1998.
Woocher said he has occasionally seen a few relatives or friends voting illegally in small-time elections, but nothing on this scale.
“This blatantly?” he said. “I’ve never come across it.”
Becker, the Ventura County elections official, said it should take about a week or two to clear up the ballot issue. Macfarlane said she could not estimate potential penalties for election fraud until charges are filed.
“We’re not out because we want people to get a felony or to get them in trouble,” Hauser said. “The thing that’s really sad is that it disenfranchises legitimate voters, whether you’re voting for or against the project.”

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