Sonoma County child care tax proposal on hold after discovery of suspicious signatures

Our Kids Our Future, the group behind the tax measure campaign, is now planning to bring the tax measure to the ballot in 2024 during the next general election|

Organizers of a Sonoma County tax measure to support care for children have suspended their campaign until the next general election after the discovery of thousands of suspicious voter signatures sunk their efforts to make the November ballot.

Our Kids Our Future, the group behind the quarter-cent sales tax proposal, is now planning to bring the tax measure to the ballot in 2024, confirmed Dennis Rosatti, a campaign consultant.

The campaign’s efforts to qualify for the November ballot by voter signature was scuttled last week when the county’s registrar of voters flagged more than 2,500 potentially fraudulent signatures. The campaign has said those signatures were mostly collected by a contractor, Total Signers LLC, that uses paid workers.

The discovery came too late to rectify by getting additional voter signatures, organizers said.

Campaign leaders had considered asking the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to place the initiative on the ballot, but decided against that route.

“While we appreciate the full support of the Board of Supervisors and our Sonoma County endorsers and supporters, we are choosing not to ask the board to place the initiative on the ballot this fall,” Ananda Sweet, Our Kids Our Future’s board president, said in a statement. “This is obviously a setback but we remain committed to finding a pathway forward for this initiative.”

A measure added to the ballot by the board would need a two-thirds approval to pass, under state law. A tax measure that qualifies by signature collection requires only a simple majority to pass.

“A two-thirds measure would be a big lift,” Rosatti said.

Our Kids Our Future had projected the tax measure, if approved, would bring in $22 million annually. About 60% of the revenue would support pay for child care employees, workforce growth and expansion of the child care network. The remaining 40% would fund perinatal and early childhood mental health, pediatric screening and treatment, and assisting children facing issues such as homelessness, according to the campaign.

The pandemic has exacerbated the nationwide strain on child care, as operators closed their doors and reduced their client load amid struggles to recruit and retain workers.

Sonoma County has 531 child care facilities, down 15% from before the pandemic. It has lost 44% of available child care slots since March 2020, according to the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4Cs), a nonprofit that offers early childhood services for families and tracks local industry data.

In recent months, the tax campaign had built momentum, bringing in endorsements from numerous county leaders and raising $348,886 in contributions between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2022, according to the latest campaign finance filings.

Top donors included the Heising-Simons Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Los Altos and San Francisco; Jackson Family Enterprises; Marc and Jeanie Kahn, who are active in the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County, a nonprofit that provides health care grants, scholarships and other programs; and Anthony Crabb, co-owner of Puma Springs Vineyards in Healdsburg and the campaign’s treasurer.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, Vice Mayor Eddie Alvarez and Healdsburg Vice Mayor Ariel Kelley have endorsed the measure, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, according to the campaign website.

“I think we would have had a warm reception,” Rosatti said of the tax measure’s chances this November.

The campaign turned in 29,686 signatures to the county’s registrar of voters for certification in June. It needed at least 21,038 valid signatures from county voters — 10% of the total votes cast by local voters in the last election for governor — to qualify for the ballot.

It is common for campaigns to have 1% to 2% of signatures that aren’t valid, but the number of problematic signatures turned in by Our Kids Our Future was 9.6%, said Registrar of Voters Deva Proto.

The majority of the problematic signatures did not match those on file in the voter registration rolls. Other errors included voters who misspelled their own names and a packet of signatures where Rohnert Park was misspelled throughout.

The signatures were collected via volunteers and two entities paid as contractors, Total Signers and Sonoma County Conservation Action, a local environmental group.

Signature collectors must sign the back of the petition packets they use to collect signatures and include their address. Proto said last week her office could not confirm whether the flawed packets came from collectors hired by Total Signers, but said the packets with a high number of invalid signatures were collected by people who listed addresses outside of Sonoma County and California.

Signature collectors do not have to be local residents.

Upon learning of the faulty signatures, Our Kids Our Future conducted its own internal audit and found the bulk of the faulty signatures were on packets collected by Total Signers, Rosatti said.

The campaign paid Total Signers $67,209 for petition circulating, according to recently filed campaign finance disclosures.

“We are very disappointed in this setback due to the signature fraud,” Sweet said. “We are working to recover losses from Total Signers LLC, but given the possibility of litigation we cannot say more.”

Total Signers did not respond to requests for comment sent by email and social media. Repeated calls were made to a phone number on the business’ Facebook page, its only apparent online presence, last updated in April.

Total Signers LLC was registered to a Fresno address and a North Miami, Florida, address in 2020, according to registered business databases in the two states. Both listings are still active and share Mychael Bluntson as the listed agent.

The registrar of voters is due to compile information regarding the invalid signatures and send it to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office and the California Secretary of State’s Office for review.

There is no deadline for turning in the information and the process could take months, Proto said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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