The Voice of the Citizen? 

Claiming the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association represents big business, West County folks rally for a rival citizens' group.

It was no surprise Contra Costa County's Measure J went down in last week's election. The parcel tax needed two-thirds of the vote to win and, more importantly, had to overcome opposition from the politically powerful Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.

It seemed innocent enough, a measure aimed at improving academic performance in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. The modest five-year parcel tax of 6.8 cents per square foot ($136 for a 2,000-square-foot home) would have been used to buy new textbooks and enhance English, math, and science curricula, while retaining qualified teachers and aides. In the chronically underperforming district, the extra $7.5 million in projected annual revenue was desperately needed. The district routinely bombs in statewide tests. It reached something of a nadir in 2002 when only 8 percent of Richmond High students registered as proficient or higher in reading and writing. Their performance on history tests was even more abysmal, with just 2 percent of students meeting proficiency standards. The worst, however, was algebra, in which districtwide proficiency stalled out at 1 percent of students.

With statistics like these, Measure J was more than merely reasonable: It was critical. And compared with the permanent $325-per-parcel tax being proposed by the tony Moraga Unified School District, you could even call it humble. The Contra Costa Taxpayers Association nonetheless opposed it while offering no recommendation for the Moraga tax initiative, saying the issue should be "left up to the local voters."

In the end, the West County measure failed, while Moraga's, in a race close enough to be determined by absentee ballots, appears likely to squeak out a victory. When questioned prior to the election about the group's uneven endorsement of parcel taxes, Contra Costa Taxpayers Association executive director Kristine Hunt was reported in the Contra Costa Times as saying: "Let's face it, these are very affluent people [in Moraga] who know how much they're being charged."

The implication was clear, according to former Richmond City Councilman Jim McMillan. "It was incredibly elitist and probably a bit racist," he says in an interview. "It told us the story of what's been going on. ... All you have to do is look at the people who serve, and they're either ex- or current employees or associates of some powerful corporate group."

For her part, Hunt insists the reporter misinterpreted her remarks. "It was misquoted," she says. "I didn't choose to correct it ... I thought anybody would realize that that sounded stupid."

But whether Hunt's remarks were elitist or misinterpreted is moot for many in West County. The incident has proved a rallying cry for a few residents and politicians, who are now attempting to form their own rival taxpayers' group.

"I envision in four or five years when elections and other things of concern to West County come around, you'll hear two voices," says Phil Lawson, a Methodist pastor living in Richmond who is part of this fledgling movement.

Although their effort has been small so far, these citizens are seeking out like-minded folks. They plan to run an ad in the Contra Costa Times, spreading their belief that the Taxpayers Association doesn't represent West County -- home to about a quarter of the county's population. In their view, the association is beholden to corporate interests and heavily influenced by its executive committee, which is largely made up of conservatives living in wealthy suburbs. "The average voter sees Contra Costa Taxpayers Association and thinks that they represent them; they don't even represent the average white guy," says West County Supervisor John Gioia. "There's literally no gender, ethnic, or geographic balance in that group, and it's mostly retired, conservative, Republican men and big business and industry.

"In other words," he continues, "those folks who don't represent us are trying to tell our community what's right when they don't have a stake."

A look at the association's executive committee bears out many of these claims. Indeed, of its ten members, none live in West County, and only two are women. The association's board of directors is similarly composed: Only two of its 28 members are women and, according to the association's records, only one member lives in West County.

"To say you cannot analyze a tax measure unless you're physically there is incorrect," Hunt counters. "I don't see how that is a valid argument. You can do the research. You can analyze it. I would say regionalism is a nonissue." However, she adds, "We would love to have more members from West County."

But regionalism is only part of the issue. More troubling, its critics say, are the relations between the Taxpayers Association and big business. "Aside from all the other hoopla that might have been discussed -- charges of this being elitist or racist, and that's probably all true too -- the real issue underlying this is a movement by a very conservative group to try and dissuade people from voting on taxing corporations and the wealthy," says Gail Feldman, president of the Kensington Property Owners Association, and one of those looking to form a rival group. "They don't want to see a tax at a higher level on industry, and that's a big issue because most of the industry -- at least in this particular case -- was in West County as opposed to places like Blackhawk or Moraga."

Fueling these people's distrust of the CoCo Taxpayers Association are the affiliations of many of its voting members with county industries. Its board of directors includes employees of Comcast, Shell, Conoco-Philips, Dow Chemical, and Chevron. Some members of the executive committee represent nonunion contractors and Chevron, while others have ties to local developers.

Then there's the matter of membership dues and donations. An annual individual membership in the association costs $50. For institutional and corporate members with more than fifteen employees, dues are pegged at $500 per year. But they don't stop there. "Larger sizes, they can pay different amounts," Hunt says. "That can be negotiated."

None of this is to say the association necessarily caters to big-business interests -- most any taxpayer group is sure to contain members of the local business community. "This is kind of interesting. First all of our members were old white guys, now they're all industrial giants," Hunt says. "Their employers don't know how they vote. I know I have at one time heard a member say this is what the corporate position is, and then they didn't vote that way -- it's not like we usually discuss it."

Still, the opponents aren't convinced the corporations that employ the association's members don't influence its actions. "This is not a truly representative organization," Gioia says. "Taxpayers' associations need to include businesses as well as homeowners, but the fact is, I don't think the average voter in Contra Costa -- especially the average voter in West Contra Costa -- knows that these are mostly people who live in Central County, are Republican, or are associated with industry. They think it's the average person fighting to make a living. It's not."

The revolution may nevertheless prove a slow one. "When there are no lions in the jungle, even the monkeys can proclaim themselves kings," McMillan says. Yet until the residents of West County can get their new organization off the ground, and grow it a mane and some teeth, the Contra Costa Taxpayers will remain the dominant citizens' group on the ballot statement.

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