Lawsuit puts VTA sales tax increase in limbo

Daily Post Staff Writer

Money from the Measure B half-cent VTA sales tax voters approved last fall has been embargoed until a lawsuit challenging the measure’s legality is resolved.

Cheriel Jensen, a retired Saratoga architect who worked as a planner for Santa Clara County until 1992, claims VTA broke the law by not telling voters how the money would be used.

The ballot language included promises to reduce traffic and fix potholes in all 15 cities in Santa Clara County, as well as finish the BART extension to San Jose and Santa Clara and improve safety at Caltrain crossings. Officials in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale are counting on some of the money to build bridges, or grade separations, at Caltrain crossings.

But the problem is that the promises weren’t iron-clad commitments. The use of the money can be changed by a three-fourths vote of VTA’s board. That loophole makes Measure B illegal, Jensen’s suit contends.

What law authorizes this?

After the election, Jensen filed a public records request with VTA for records identifying any statutes that authorized such a measure. But the agency didn’t come up anything.

“Since the VTA had placed the measure on the ballot, the agency surely had at least one copy of the statute(s) or a piece of paper identifying the authorizing statute(s), if any,” said Jensen’s attorney, Gary Wesley of Mountain View, in court papers. “But seemingly, the VTA did not (and does not) want to identify the statutes because the measure is unauthorized by any law.”

VTA filed an objection to the lawsuit, which Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Mary Arand sustained on April 20. Jensen then appealed the decision on Aug. 17 to the state Sixth District Court of Appeal, where it should be decided in six months.

If the judgment is reversed, the trial court would rule on the case. If it declared Measure B invalid, VTA would have to find funding elsewhere, Wesley said.

Funds frozen

In the meantime, VTA can’t touch the money coming in from the sales tax increase. Collection of the tax began in April.

The increase, which was approved by almost 72% of voters, will last for 30 years and raise $6 billion to $6.5 billion.

Supporters included Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino, Silicon Valley Organization president Matthew Mahood, former chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority Rod Diridon Sr. and Council of the Leagues of Women Voters of Santa Clara County chair Roberta Hollimon.

Opponents included Mountain View City Councilman John M. Inks, Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association president Mark W. A. Hinkle, BayRail Alliance president Andy Chow and Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter regional chair Gladwyn d’ Souza.

Note: This story was corrected to say the money has been embargoed until the case is resolved. Originally it said a judge has barred VTA from using the money until the case was resolved.