Sonoma County child care tax campaign files suit seeking election law exception
In a bid to revive their derailed bid to qualify for the Sonoma County ballot, organizers behind a proposed tax measure to support child care services are asking the courts to grant an exception to state election law.
In a lawsuit filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, the Our Kids Our Future campaign requested the court allow them 27 days to collect voter signatures and recoup the irregular ones invalidated by the county Registrar of Voters in July.
Campaigns have 180 days to collect enough voter signatures to qualify for a ballot. Our Kids Our Future turned in 29,626 signatures in July, 27 days ahead of its deadline. It needed 21,038 signatures to qualify but fell short when county election officials discovered a high number of signatures the office deemed likely fraudulent.
The discovery prevented the campaign from qualifying in time for the November 2022 election. Campaign organizers have since sued Total Signers, the contractor it hired to help collect the signatures, arguing that an internal investigation traced the bad signatures back to the contractor.
In their new suit, campaign organizers contend the original collection period should be reopened because they believe the fraudulent signatures came from an outside firm and interfered with the will of Sonoma County voters.
“We’re not asking for additional days outside of the 180-day signature gathering period,” said Ananda Sweet, board president of Our Kids Our Future. “We’re just asking for the 27 days we did not use.”
Mychael Bluntson, Total Signer’s operating manager and owner, has pushed back against accusations of fraud. In October, he said the signatures “looked apparently good,” when he submitted them.
The campaign needs 2,582 additional certified signatures to reach the qualifying threshold. If the court denies the campaign’s request, it will have to start over and collect the full amount of more than 21,000.
The suit names Deva Proto, the county’s voter registrar, as the respondent, but Sweet said the campaign has no issue with Proto’s work on the matter. Rather, the court system is the only mechanism to get the 27 days reopened, leaving Proto’s office the lone respondent in this case, Sweet said.
“It’s certainly not a statement about the Registrar of Voters,” Sweet said. “They did everything right.”
The county appears poised to question the matter to the state.
Under state law, Proto does not have the ability to reopen the collection period, said Josh Myers, chief deputy county counsel.
“Deva Proto as the Registrar of Voters has to follow state law, so right now there’s nothing that Deva can do to allow them to have that extra time,” Meyers said. “They’re asking for an exception to state law based on fraud they allege was committed.”
The county has involved the California Secretary of State’s Office and Attorney General’s Office given that the campaign’s request sits squarely in election law, Myers said.
Dennis Rosatti, a consultant for the tax campaign, stressed the group is not asking to operate outside the law regulating signature gathering.
“We are following the code. We had no intention to do anything but follow the code,” said Rosatti. “If not for the egregious actions of these signature gatherers we would have qualified.”
A case management hearing in the new case has been scheduled for Feb. 1.
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office is also “actively investigating,” the signatures to determine whether to bring forward a case, Brian Staebell, assistant district attorney, confirmed via email. Staebell could not confirm when a decision would be made.
Our Kids Our Future had championed a proposed quarter-cent countywide sales tax to support pay for child care employees, expansion of the local child care network, pediatric screening and treatment and other early childhood services.
The campaign projected the measure would bring in $22 million annually if passed.
Sweet acknowledged the lawsuit and its circumstances are unusual, but said the pursuing the 27-day window “felt like the right thing to do.”
“The reason we went for the ballot measure in the first place is because Sonoma County kids and families need support,” said Sweet.
Whether the court grants the 27 days or not, Sweet said the campaign is planning to bring the measure to voters in 2024.
“We’re determined to move forward one way or the other,” said Sweet.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MurphReports.