Tensions spike after DA calls SLO's rental inspection repeal 'unlawful'



New Times screwed up last week.

ATTORNEY SPAT The District Attorney's Office and SLO City Attorney's Office continue to feud over the DA's letter to a Measure B-17 supporter calling the city's rental inspection ordinance repeal "unlawful." - FILE PHOTO
  • ATTORNEY SPAT The District Attorney's Office and SLO City Attorney's Office continue to feud over the DA's letter to a Measure B-17 supporter calling the city's rental inspection ordinance repeal "unlawful."

In our July 27 news brief, "SLO 'unlawfully altered' special election ballot, county DA says," we misstated the SLO County District Attorney's Office's critique of how the city of San Luis Obispo handled Measure B-17—the citizen initiative to repeal and replace the SLO Rental Housing Inspection Program (RHIP).

New Times believed that the District Attorney's (DA) allegations against the city—that it violated the state elections code—were about changes made to Measure B-17's ballot title and summary. After reviewing email correspondence between the DA and the city Attorney's Office, it became clear that those allegations actually concerned the SLO City Council's vote to repeal the RHIP. The vote took place on March 21, after the city had received and certified the Measure B-17 initiative.

"[The city] took [the RHIP] out of existence," county Assistant DA Lee Cunningham told New Times after the article was published. "The issue I saw was it fundamentally altered the question itself that was being put to voters."

The DA's Office made the allegations in a June 13 letter responding to a criminal complaint filed by Kevin Rice, a Measure B-17 supporter and financer.

Rice shared the letter with New Times on July 25.

"Although it appears that the City Council unlawfully altered the initiative, I don't believe their action was criminal," the letter, signed by DA Dan Dow, read. "I see no evidence that the conduct of the City Council constituted willful neglect/refusal or intentional fraud."

New Times wasn't the only party confused by the DA's analysis. Rice said he thought the DA was addressing his complaint, which was about the language of the Measure B-17 ballot title and summary, not the City Council's repeal of the inspection program.

The DA's opinion also bewildered the city Attorney's Office, setting off a fiery email exchange between the county and city offices.

"The conclusion he reached was a little bit unbelievable to me," City Attorney Christine Dietrick told New Times. "I truly read it, scratched my head and thought, 'What?'"

In an email to Cunningham, Dietrick chastised the DA's Office for not making contact with the city during its investigation and called the assertions "unfounded based on facts." Dietrick said that the City Council had the legislative authority to repeal the RHIP, which it adopted in 2015. She called the council's decision "independent" and in a "different lane" than the Measure B-17 initiative.

"We didn't alter the ordinance that was put forth [in Measure B-17]," Dietrick said. "It's word for word identical to the one they dropped off at the Clerk's Office."

But Cunningham maintained that repealing the program undercut the part of the initiative that would repeal the RHIP. He cited elections code 9210, that a legislative body cannot "alter" a section of an initiative after it's been filed. While Dietrick called for Cunningham to retract the contents of his letter, he stood by his analysis.

"I still believe it was unlawful conduct," Cunningham said. "At the very least, it violated the spirit of the law."

He added that the DA's Office had "no desire to insert ourselves into the city of SLO's politics."

"It was a private letter [to Rice]," he said. "It's basically lawyers who have a different legal opinion, which happens all the time, every day."

Initiative proponent and local attorney Stew Jenkins told New Times that the DA's letter affirmed his view of the city's conduct. Jenkins has openly criticized the city for its handling of the initiative since it was filed on Feb. 16.

"Mr. Cunningham did an independent investigation into election law and he reached the same conclusion I'd reached: The ballot had been manipulated by the city attorney and City Council to attempt to confuse the voters," Jenkins said.

Measure B-17 ballots are due back to the County Clerk's Office by Aug. 22. The measure calls to repeal the RHIP and replace it with a "Non-Discrimination in Housing Ordinance." The replacement ordinance has been widely criticized by community groups, from People's Self-Help Housing to the SLO Chamber of Commerce, for being vaguely-worded and potentially threatening to other city housing ordinances, including an affordable housing policy. Δ


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