Every election voters receive a small booklet of information that includes a list of candidates, descriptions of upcoming ballot measures and arguments for and against them. Most of us give those arguments — 300 words each of pros, cons and one rebuttal apiece — little thought. But most of us aren't Scotty McClure, a Southern Humboldt Unified School District board member, vocal Donald Trump supporter, anti-taxer and civic enthusiast.
So when the opportunity arose for residents in the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District to weigh in on Measure W — a special election measure that would raise the parcel tax within the district's boundaries to $170 a year to fund a new hospital — McClure jumped at the opportunity. He labored over his con statement, grudgingly complying with requests that it be trimmed down. When given the opportunity to answer the pro-Measure W's rebuttal, he shot back with a succinct opinion that didn't need to be edited for length: "Insert fart smell here."
Those four simple words have made things complicated for the Humboldt County Elections Office, which is required to get the voter pamphlet out no later than March 8 for the May 2 vote. County Registrar of Voters Kelly Sanders objects to sending voters a packet with a fart joke. But the date to submit pro and con arguments has passed, and McClure's was the only submission. McClure, currently vacationing in Arizona, is holding his ground.
"I could understand why if I were cutting somebody down, but I'm not," said McClure, adding that "fart" is not a profanity.
Because McClure refuses to withdraw or amend his irreverent statement, and because state law doesn't give elections officials discretion to censor ballot arguments, Sanders has decided to seek a court order to delete the offending words. The California Elections Code states that during the public examination period for elections material "any voter ... or the elections official may seek a writ of mandate or an injunction requiring any material to be amended or deleted."
"It's my client's position that [the fart joke] is not consistent with the elections code as interpreted through case law," said Deputy County Counsel Joel Ellinwood, referring to Sanders. "My client has no authority to independently interpret what should and should not be a valid argument. If there is a question about that, it has to be put before the judge."
The state elections code section 9380 says a judge may issue a "peremptory writ of mandate or an injunction ... upon clear and convincing proof that the material in question is false, misleading, or inconsistent."
Reached by phone, Steve Chessin, president of Californians for Electoral Reform, said that at first blush the phrase, "insert fart smell here," did not seem to meet the criteria of being "false, misleading or inconsistent," although he hastened to say this was only his personal opinion, not that of the organization.
"It is his opinion of the argument in favor and, as the author of the argument against, he seems entitled to have his rebuttal printed," said Chessin.
The argument in favor, penned by a group of local business owners, a former healthcare administrator, a hospice counselor and massage therapist, argues that the current hospital, which was built in 1949, must be rebuilt in order to meet state seismic requirements or risk closure by the year 2030. That closure, they say, would mean an "out-migration of young families and seniors." The hospital also hopes to expand its small skilled nursing facility, the only one that is independently owned in Humboldt County, and which currently has a long waiting list.
Barbara Truitt, a former board member of the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District and its current public relations manager and foundation director, had no comment on McClure's rebuttal, but said the new hospital was a necessity for the remote region.
"The parcel tax measure is designed to serve as collateral for a loan we'll be getting," said Truitt, explaining that there is already a tax in place, and Measure W would only increase it by $45 a year. "The fact of the matter is, if we didn't need to build a new facility, we would have been able to reduce the parcel tax next year."
McClure's opinion? Insert fart smell here. He said both the tax hike and its long shelf life (45 years) stink.
In his original rebuttal to the "pro" argument, McClure insisted that raising taxes for a new hospital and retrofitting wasn't a financially sound decision, arguing that it would be cheaper to rebuild the old hospital in its present location and get an exemption from Congress to waive the earthquake retrofit.
McClure's current absence from the county and the impacted nature of the Humboldt County court system has added an extra tension to the process, as the matter must be decided in the short window between when McClure returns from Arizona and the deadline to distribute elections material. Ellinwood has requested Judge Timothy Cissna schedule a hearing for Monday, March 6. (Check www.northcoastjournal.com for updates.)
"My client feels strongly about the integrity of the elections process," said Ellinwood in a phone interview. "She feels that profane expressions that don't provide information for the voters don't belong in official elections material."
He added that it was "inappropriate" for taxpayers to fund the distribution of "irrelevant or scatological material."
McClure interprets the injunctive action, in which the board of supervisors will be named as the respondent and McClure will be listed as the party of interest, differently.
"The elections department does not have a right to censor me," he said, adding that the looming court date has put a damper on his Southwestern vacation.
The outcome of the hearing may set local precedent for the fate of future fart jokes in election material.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.