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Judge sides with County chief elections officer in case alleging deceptive school bond ballot labels; Redwood City voter files appeal

Christopher Robell filed the appeal Thursday, June 22 after the court claimed his case is "wholly unsubstantiated."

The Redwood City resident who filed a lawsuit against the San Mateo County chief elections officer claiming two local school district bond ballot labels misled voters has filed an appeal after a County Superior Court judge dismissed the case last month, calling allegations against the public official "wholly unsubstantiated." 

Christopher Robell, a retired CFO, filed the original lawsuit on March 29,  alleging the ballot labels for Sequoia High School District's Measure W and Redwood City School District's Measure S, which together total $889.5 million, misled voters and failed to adhere to legal requirements.

In his election contest, he specifically targets Mark Church, the County's chief elections officer, claiming that Church violated California's Education Code by printing the 75-word ballot labels that Robell said were deceptive to taxpayers because it did not include all the information necessary for a taxpayer to make an informed decision about future tax commitments. 

Robell’s case was dismissed with prejudice by Superior Court Judge Nicole Healy on May 10 following a three-hour hearing in April. Healy wrote in her findings that the allegations against Church were "wholly unsubstantiated" and further wrote that Robell “offered no evidence showing that the allegedly defective ballot labels effected the outcome of the election…” 

Healy called Robell’s case “untimely.”

"A challenge to bond materials must be brought before the election in order to correct any defects and avoid interfering in the conduct of the election,” Healy wrote in her findings. “And a voter challenging a ballot measure must demonstrate that the outcome of the election was affected by the allegedly defective ballot materials. Contestant admittedly cannot do so.”

Robell said he disagreed with every point made in Healy’s 28-page findings and conclusion in the case, which he said rests on the 75-word ballot label.

“[The voter guide] is not enough. It's necessary but not sufficient,” Robell said, adding that any accompanying documentation that may further explain the ballot contains “legalese” that taxpayers may not even read. “There are laws about that 75- word ballot question. And the laws state that you need to state what the maximum interest rate is; you need to state what the duration of the bonds is… It can't be argumentative and it can't be prejudiced. There can’t be a reason to vote or against...”

Janet Mueller, a shareholder with the law firm that served as bond counsel for both school districts in using Measure S and Measure W funds, testified in opposition to Robell's claims. 

In a declaration of opposition, Mueller said any post-election challenge to a bond measure could delay the process of planning and implementing the bonds. According to Mueller, it could result in higher interest rates borne by taxpayers.

"Given the current interest rate environment, even a delay of a few weeks could potentially result in higher interest rates on the Measure S bonds," said Mueller. 

San Mateo County's chief deputy county attorney, Brian Kulich, expressed confidence in the court's decision and expected it to be upheld. 

"We believe the Superior Court's decision— which dismissed the challenge in its entirely, correctly declined to overturn the voters' approval of Measure S and W, and confirmed Mr. Church complied with the law— is well-reasoned and will be affirmed on appeal," Kulich told the Redwood City Pulse. 

Robell said he hoped a “higher level court will realize that this is a fundamental constitutional violation…”

Robell's appeal, which he filed on Thursday, June 22, is currently pending in the San Mateo County Superior Court. 


Avery Luke

About the Author: Avery Luke

Avery Luke, a Los Altos native, is a reporter at the Redwood City Pulse. She was formerly a reporter at KPFA Radio in Berkeley. Avery is also a newscast writer at KTVU FOX 2 and holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from DePaul University in Chicago.
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