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SLO officials fire back after District Attorney says they were ‘unlawful’ in special election

Ballots are in the mail for San Luis Obispo voters to decide on a proposed ordinance that could help determine the city’s future housing policy. Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked by Aug. 22.
Ballots are in the mail for San Luis Obispo voters to decide on a proposed ordinance that could help determine the city’s future housing policy. Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked by Aug. 22. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo city officials fired back Thursday against a legal analysis from the District Attorney’s Office claiming the city committed no crime but was apparently “unlawful” in how it handled a housing-related ballot initiative, saying the DA’s Office misunderstood the law and facts.

The analysis is “unprofessional at best and highly suspect at worse,” said Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson, adding that citizen Kevin P. Rice requested the DA’s review of the city’s conduct as a political tactic.

The special election ballot, which SLO voters have until Aug. 22 to mail, could determine the city’s future housing policy. Supporters say the measure would end discrimination in city housing policies but the City Council warns that it could “kill off all the city’s housing programs” and harm elderly and low-income residents.

The disagreement between the two government entities concerns the way the city presented the ballot question to voters.

Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham wrote in a private letter to Rice on June 13, signed by District Attorney Dan Dow, that no intentional fraud occurred, which would constitute a crime. But, Cunningham continued, “it appears” the City Council unlawfully altered the citizen’s initiative to repeal and replace the city’s Rental Housing Inspection Program and a “civil action may be your only remedy.”

I never intended to use the power of this office to interfere with the city’s elective process. I was sending a private letter to a citizen who complained of a crime.

Lee Cunningham, assistant district attorney

Cunningham wrote that because the City Council voted to repeal the city’s Rental Housing Inspection program, made effective in April, after the citizen’s petition had been filed with the city clerk in February, the ballot question posed to voters changed from a “repeal and replace” choice, to simply a “replace” choice,” fundamentally changing the citizen’s initiative. The ballot question in voters’ mailed envelopes notes the council’s repeal of the program by legislative action on April 20, 2017.

But City Attorney Christine Dietrick fired back with a written response Thursday to the DA’s Office, calling Cunningham’s analysis a misunderstanding of the facts and the law.

Dietrick said that City Council acted independently of any elective process to repeal the rental housing inspection, which is within the council’s rights. Municipal law attorney Craig A. Steele, retained to help the city through the election process, has backed the city’s position.

The whole thing is unfortunate waste of time and resources. It’s a concerted effort to confuse the public.

Heidi Harmon, San Luis Obispo mayor

Cunningham’s conclusion “is unfounded based on the facts, as well as a better understanding and application of the Elections Code,” Dietrick wrote. Furthermore, she added, the city should have been consulted “given the infrequency with which your office deals with Elections Code issues and the fact that your office, as you have publicly acknowledged, is not charged with making civil liability conclusions.”

Cunningham told The Tribune that he “never intended to use the power of this office to interfere with the city’s elective process. I was sending a private letter to a citizen who complained of a crime.”

Mayor Heidi Harmon said that the measure’s petitioners “are playing games” with people’s lives who depend on affordable housing.

“The whole thing is an unfortunate waste of time and resources,” Harmon said. “It’s a concerted effort to confuse the public.”

Rice believes the city is “the bad player here,” saying it changed the meaning of the original ordinance. “All I want is rental inspections to end permanently and that door to be closed. I’m a renter. I’m the little guy here.”

But, Christianson said, “(Rice) knows he can’t win on the merits of the ballot measure, so he’s resorting to tactics that are not above board or fully explained.”

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