A lawsuit is challenging the wording of a June 4 ballot measure that will determine the fate of rent stabilization at St. Helena’s only mobile home park.
Tom Vence, a Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park resident who described himself last October as the park’s weekend manager, filed suit in Napa County Superior Court on March 25. His suit claims that the City Council’s agreed-upon ballot language for Measure F violates state laws requiring ballot questions to be truthful and impartial.
The suit seeks a court order amending the ballot question, which it calls false, misleading and improperly argumentative. It also seeks changes to the pro-F ballot arguments signed by the five members of the council.
Vence’s attorney, Ashlee Titus, made some of the same objections in a letter sent on Feb. 25, one day before the council approved the ballot language. The letter called the wording “false, unlawfully argumentative,” and “likely to mislead the voters.”
Based on Titus’ letter, the council approved alternate language that omitted the word “voluntary” in describing rent stabilization. The city sent that amended language to Registrar of Voters John Tuteur — not the original wording referenced in the lawsuit.
“The ballot language … does not violate the Elections Code and would be appropriate and would withstand a legal challenge if one were brought,” City Attorney Tom Brown told the council at the time.
The city’s ordinance states that park residents would be able to choose between a long-term lease subject to the park’s usual rent increases or a short-term lease of one year or less subject to rent stabilization. However, Vence’s lawsuit argues that the ordinance would impose “mandatory rent increase controls.”
The ordinance “requires mandatory control of rents in leases of one year or less,” the lawsuit states. “This means that if the park does not offer long-term leases, the renter is compelled to opt in to rent control, resulting in the action not being voluntary or a choice.”
The lawsuit also objects to the city using the term “rent stabilization” instead of “rent control,” since the word stabilization “implies that there is something unstable that must be stabilized.” The ballot measure should also say that rent stabilization applies to the park’s owners instead of its residents, the lawsuit states.
“The city’s official description of Measure F contains the false assertion that the law was voluntary,” Vence said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is my understanding that it is not. Voters deserve facts and I am requesting that the city correct the ballot description before any materials are printed or distributed to voters.”
The council discussed the lawsuit in closed session last Thursday. The suit asks the court to act quickly before ballots are printed in May.
Brown, City Attorney Tom Brown, City Manager Mark Prestwich and City Clerk Cindy Tzafopoulos – who is named in the suit in her official capacity – declined to comment.
“The Registrar of Voters is neutral on the issues covered in the suit,” Tuteur said in a statement. “Our primary concern is that the matter be settled swiftly so that the ballot creation and voter information materials are not held up in a manner that would delay the conduct of the election.”
The council adopted a rent stabilization ordinance in November, but opponents gathered enough signatures to put it on hold pending a referendum.
If approved, Measure F would limit rent increases for Vineyard Valley residents with short-term leases to 3 percent of the base rent or 100 percent of the change in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower.
This story has been amended to reflect that the council adopted alternate ballot language that omitted the word “voluntary”.