Los Osos homeowners are facing an unusual ballot in the town's ongoing sewer saga: Not only will they be asked to vote on whether to assess themselves around $200 a month for an unspecified wastewater project, their vote will be open to public scrutiny.
Several residents told the SLO County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 21 that some people are afraid to vote on the controversial issue because their vote would not be confidential. Under the provisions of Prop. 218 known as "the right to vote on taxes act" all ballots cast on the sewer assessment are a matter of public record.
"The whole process is fairly undemocratic to begin with," said Martha Goldin, a retired judge.
She recommended a two-envelope ballot, with an unmarked envelope containing the ballot and only the outer envelope marked with identifying information.
"That is the very least the Board of Supervisors could do to demonstrate a modicum of democratic process," Goldin said.
The Board of Supervisors' Chief Deputy Clerk, Vicki Shelby, said in a later interview that people's names will not be on the ballots, but their assessor's parcel number and their signature will be.
"We've tried to make it so it's not as easy to find out whose it is. They'll have to do more work to see who owns the parcel," Shelby said, "But they'll still be able to figure it out. We don't have any way around it. It's not considered an election it's a protest vote. That makes it a very different animal."
Chief Deputy County Counsel Warren Jensen said that county officials are looking into whether Goldin's two-envelope suggestion could be implemented.
"We're not trying to expose people unnecessarily," Jensen said in an interview.
Ballots will be mailed to Los Osos property owners at the end of August, and returned ballots will be opened on Oct. 24 and counted Oct. 25, she said. A protest hearing, in which homeowners can also vote, is set for Oct. 23 in front of the Board of Supervisors.
"We'll do everything we can within the law to maintain voter confidentiality," County Supervisor Bruce Gibson said.
He noted the ballot "purposely" doesn't include details of the sewer project, many of which have not yet been worked out.
"The community now has to step up and say, 'We will pay.' It's like prequalifying for a loan for a house. Our goal is to have the community trust the information that comes out. If you say yes, we'll develop a project and refine the estimates. If you say no, the legislation says the county is now taken out of the process by state law, and it goes back to a bankrupt [Community Services District]," Gibson said.
He stated that the $200-a-month assessment is "a significant financial impact to the people of Los Osos," and said county officials are looking at various options for grants and financing to reduce the financial burden.
"It's not a pleasant prospect," Gibson noted.