West Covina Residents Vote Down Controversial Tax Initiative

Depending on who you ask, the result was a success or a failure with “no excuses”

The controversy began as a rumor. Some group was writing a tax initiative and that was all there was to it.

Former city council member James Toma had said that this item had been in the works for a while as something that the council had been kicking down the road. Toma supported a tax initiative when he was on the council and was unsuccessful in passing it as former council member Mike Spence and then Mayor Pro Tem Tony Wu voted the special tax down. At a 3–2 vote, the tax would not be passed on to the voters.

At the time, Toma had said that the city could not hire itself out of a deficit and that overtime for public safety is an issue, because public safety is 80 percent of the city’s budget and 94 percent of the police’s expenses went straight to salaries.

“Two-thirds of the voters actually said that they would support a sales tax increase for public safety,” Toma said when he motioned on Aug. 2, 2018 for a sales tax increase that was initiated by city staff. “That’s [polling is] the closest thing that we have to understanding and knowing what the voters want in addition to actually talking to voters.”

Since then, Toma has called the need to pay for public safety a “poorly kept secret,” and has told SAC.Media that actions to support public safety and increase service without passing a tax is trying to have it both ways. He added that the money has to come from somewhere and that he believed the council was not going to touch the issue and would instead let the unions handle it themselves.

A year later, planning commissioner Glenn Kennedy, who has served as a consultant for the West Covina Police Officer’s Association circulated a petition to put the item on the ballot.

Two years later, the item came to a vote from the public. Former council member Corey Warshaw, who repeated numerous times that he wanted to “let the people decide” received his response from West Covina residents.

Around 10,732 voted no and 2,865 voted yes.

But how do you go from polling data in 2018 that says two-thirds of the city would support a sales tax for public safety to around 79 percent of residents rejecting the offer in 2020?

It starts with applause filling the council chambers in 2018 when former council member Mike Spence and then Mayor Pro Tem Tony Wu opposed the tax and ensured it did not make it to the 2018 ballot.

This move was politically bad for Toma and former council member Corey Warshaw in 2018. The pair became disliked by a large group of residents for their decisions, and they would both end up rejecting a parcel tax at the next special meeting.

Then mayor Lloyd Johnson’s decision to join them in favor of the sales tax was also not well received, but he did not face the same backlash for his decision since his election was being held after theirs. Johnson also joined the council in voting against the later parcel tax.

“I still believe in a sales tax, but that’s not going to happen,” Warshaw said.

Warshaw decided to not run for reelection, and Toma lost his reelection bid.

From here, the two camps diverge vastly.

Those in support of the measure state that Toma’s opposition to the measure was purely political, which echoes what Toma said in 2018 about those opposing that previous sales tax being political, and that he was voted out for a reason. Others against the measure, including those who previously would not have voted for Toma or supported him, found themselves working with him and his wife in the grassroots campaign against the measure.

One “YES on WC” campaign ad cites Toma speaking, mentions his previous support for the other special sales tax, and encourages voters to not be fooled by a “one term politician.”

“Who will you stand with? The men and women of West Covina Police and Firefighters associations? Or will you stand with former politicians who put political pandering ahead of public safety? Consider former West Covina Mayor James Toma, now he says he is against the sales tax, but he was for it before he was against it!”

The “NO on WC” campaign has photos of Toma alongside former mayors Forest Tennant, Ben Wong, and Fred Sykes holding up one of their signs. Throughout emails and posts to their website, their campaign encouraged residents to join the former mayors and their neighbors to “stop the tax grab.” Of the four, Tennant and Wong did not run for office while Sykes lost his election bid to Wu and Toma lost his election bid to council member Dario Castellanos. Although Wong did not run, he would be nominated among others to receive Wu’s at large seat in 2018 until council member Jessica Shewmaker was appointed to the seat.

Toma was against two taxes and in favor of one, but depending on how the facts are presented and what information is included or excluded from the 2018 to 2020 time period, two views are prevalent: he flipped in regards to his support of public safety or he flipped on his support of taxes depending on how each tax was presented.

If the resident supports Toma, they will likely say that Toma lost the election because of $25,000 worth of campaign expenditures by the unions and that Castellanos was picked by the unions. If the resident is against Toma, they will likely say that his words, and Sykes words, are sour grapes from a politician that the people did not want back in office.

Both sides link Toma to the tax initiative, and Toma has linked himself to the “NO on WC” sales tax movement.

Lack of Communication

Castellanos, for his part, did not speak in favor or against the measure as petitions were being circulated and Mayor Pro Tem Letty Lopez also did not provide comments about the initiative. Their lack of comments frustrated the residents who asked for council to comment on the initiative.

“I don’t care what your campaign promises were, this needs to have your input,” Potras said at the Aug. 20 meeting. “You represent us, you have to balance the business interest with the taxpayer resident interest with the employee interest. This ordinance is flawed and should not make it to ballot.”

While certain council members were silent, Johnson and Wu shared their opinions.

“I don’t think a sales tax increase will work, but I’m not going to interfere,” Wu told the Tribune.

Johnson who supported both sales taxes, and later put “Yes on WC” signs on his property, put a request on the agenda to ask for the council to address the sales tax initiative and bring it before council.

At the previous meeting, appointed council member Jessica Shewmaker told audience members that her opinion on the tax was none of their business at that point, because the initiative had not collected all of its necessary signatures to progress to the ballot.

“As for where I stand on it, at this point, none of your business,” Shewmaker said in response to Potras and those asking for council to put it on the agenda at the Aug. 20 meeting. “I say that because this tax initiative is being put out by the POA. When and if they gather enough signatures, then I will share where my opinion is. This is for the community to decide. Not me.”

This statement was disliked by those against the tax and became shortened into a nine second clip on nowctax.com of Shewmaker stating “none of your business.”

The videos section of the website has this as its caption:
“Jessica Shewmaker states where she ‘stands on the initiative’ and let’s everyone know that it is ‘none of your business!’”

Similar to Toma, depending on how much context is added, Shewmaker’s statement has been interpreted in two prevailing ways: she is saying she does not believe her position is any of the resident’s business or she is saying that because the item was not an item before council it does not matter what she thinks until the unions gather all of the signatures they need to put it on the ballot.

Her response became a sticking point for the “NO on WC” campaign, who took the first interpretation.

Shewmaker would later clarify her stance at the same meeting.

“I’m not going to influence people who then decide to vote in support of it, sign the petition, or not based on my name. This is a police officer association and West Covina Fire[fighters] Association initiative. That’s why it is not before us,” Shewmaker added. “It is not an issue for us at this time.”

Then when the public safety raises were approved in a 4–1 vote, before the tax initiative’s results were known, Shewmaker told the residents her position, despite opposing the raise.

“If this had been after the tax when we knew that we were actually getting revenue, this would be a no-brainer,” Shewmaker said at the Oct. 15 meeting. “I will be out helping to get this tax passed because I want to be able to fulfill the commitments that are being offered here if the council votes for it.”

Her opposition to the raise was also clarified and most of what she states falls in line with the literature being distributed by the “NO on WC” movement.

“We have PERS going up year after year — contributions we have to make. We have officers, firefighters working themselves to the bone for our city, so this raise is absolutely necessary,” Shewmaker added. “What really hits me in the gut is I can’t vote for it because I don’t know our numbers, and ultimately I have a responsibility to all of you, but my ultimate responsibility is to the city. That’s to make sure that when we give something we can afford it.”

Resident Angie Gillingham agreed with the sentiment before Shewmaker even voted.

“The residents support the police and fire, that’s not what this is about, if we can’t afford to have this 12 percent increase at this time,” Gillingham said on Oct. 15. “So we ask, the residents ask, you to think about this, really think about this and do not support this at this time until we’re in a better situation that we can, as others have said, look at this as a reasonable contract that we can all agree and support as residents.”

It took the raise being on the agenda for the council to put forth any larger opinion on the matter, as the council let Johnson’s request to talk about the tax before the raise lay motionless. The request was so unpopular with the council, Wu called it grandstanding and said Johnson knew it would not get a second.

Certain residents still supported Johnson’s attempt to get the council to discuss the tax, but others like Jefferson “JD” De Roux took issue with Johnson for his support of the raises.

In particular, this line from the Oct. 15 meeting:

“Do I feel that sometimes we make decisions that we should stand back and take a look at? Yes we do,” Johnson said. “This is one that I’m going to take a leap of faith. I am going to support this tonight.”

At the Feb. 20 “NO on WC” rally, De Roux told Johnson that he should not be taking a “leap of faith” with the city’s finances. The city has been facing financial struggles that delayed a late adoption of the budget in 2018 and a continued struggle to produce a balanced budget in 2019.

Both budgets were balanced with controversial firings and eliminations of positions.

While other words were exchanged at the rally, Johnson said that he hoped the tax measure would pass but understands the issues the residents take with it. At the rally, he added that he was not convinced it would pass and agreed with resident Steve Bennett’s early prediction that the election would likely go “one percent either way.”

Measure Issues

The measure’s origin was a point of contention with those against the sales tax initiative because it was written by the unions. Johnson would also agree with residents at the rally when they called it a “poorly worded” measure, but would add that it was needed for public safety.

Some of the measure’s language would have changed the current Audit and Finance Committee into an oversight committee that would add police and fire department representatives. This was unpopular with the no crowd who colloquially referred to it as the “fox guarding the hen house.”

The words were not the only issue with the no crowd, the measure’s petition circulation process had reported instances and rumors of people harassing residents outside shopping centers to request signatures. Petitioners were reportedly paid $5 a signature and Kennedy was paid $9,000 as a consultant.

The West Covina Police Officers Association PAC’s 460 forms show the following breakdown: the 2018 statement covers a period from Oct. 21 to Dec. 31, where Kennedy received $3,500 for consulting services, and the 2019 statement covers a period from Jan. 1 to Jun. 30, where Kennedy received a payment of $2,500 and a payment of $3,000.

Kennedy was in the hospital at the time of the Aug. 20 meeting when his financial compensation was brought up by residents. One said his involvement on the planning commission was a potential conflict of interest because he works with the union, another called for his removal from the commission and a third asked if supporting the tax measure was to benefit the city or himself.

A fourth resident stated that there was no conflict of interest present because the planning commission did not handle union issues, and that Kennedy would recuse himself if the union ever came before the commission for action. Two council members, Shewmaker and Johnson, joined that resident and stated that the claims against Kennedy using those figures were uncalled for and that he has the same right as anyone else to make a living as he sees fit.

“Go ahead, attack the tax initiative,” Shewmaker said. “But how dare you attack this member of the community who is just doing what he thinks is best.”

“Before Glenn Kennedy became her planning commissioner, he was my community services commissioner for four years, almost,” Johnson said before clarifying he would not have removed Kennedy.

“There’s no way I would have said, “Hey Glenn, you have to pick or choose,” Johnson added. “There’s no way that I would replace him.”

Aside from its origins, once the petitioners received 7,617 signatures, of which 6,631 were verified by the registrar and only 5,573 were needed, the measure was placed on the ballot.

Then the websites for and against the measure, alongside various Facebook pages and social media posts, became the hub of voting talk.

Some of those against the measure said they were blocked and silenced on West Covina Insider, the main Facebook discussion page for West Covina issues, and this led to the creation a new discussion page on Facebook called West Covina Forum.

From there the community has remained divided on how best to move forward with or without the tax initiative.

The yes crowd remains concerned that the county or the South Coast Air Quality Management District will try to take the money if West Covina does not take it, and even if a new tax is presented, that community members could get behind, the no crowd is a broad coalition of individuals. Not every individual who voted no would be willing to change their vote “for the good of the city” as a section of that coalition includes people who are against taxes in general.

The rejection of Measure WC, coupled with the results and turnout against Prop 13 and Measure FD, alongside a polarized 2020 presidential election puts the premise of the community working together to pass a tax with better wording on shaky ground.

Should they try it again, a few residents do have their own ideas on how to approach it.

Alternative Suggestions

Bennett and other residents have proposed a restricted tax that would go towards funding pension liabilities to reduce one of the many financial issues facing the city. However, there are certain specifics that would need to be ironed out that could change that proposed solution from requiring a simple majority into requiring a two-thirds vote, which would add difficulty into passing the tax measure.

Others have suggested that they would have supported a tax for public safety if the tax was authored by council and did not have certain specific provisions.

Regardless, a new potential tax failed twice before with council and the latest was voted down by residents this March.

Looming Issues

While the “NO on WC” movement has stated that the financial position of the city would get worse down the road if the measure is passed, members of the movement have also noted how the failure to pass this tax will be felt immediately.

Resident Jim Grivich said on Oct. 15 that the real impact of this decision will not be felt this year and that it is an impact the city cannot absorb:
“So you’re basically $6 million short next year, and I’m saying all of this if the tax increase doesn’t pass.”

The city also will likely have to cut back on more services, including public safety, to fit within its budget.

“Back in 2008, we had 127 or 128 officers. Here in 2019 we authorized 99, but we’re down to 78,” Bell said on Oct. 15. “That’s a pretty significant blow to the police department.”

The true impact of this tax measure failing is yet to be seen in how the council will handle funding services without a lot of money in hand to do so.
The city is now short that potential tax revenue source and has an upcoming audit on the horizon as the term bankruptcy continues to be thrown about.

For brevity, this article has not gone into every detail about the tax measure. More resources and information can be found at the following websites:

https://yesonwc.com/
https://nowctax.com/
https://www.westcovinaneighbors.org/

Editor’s Note: While one website lists SAC.Media as ​a “Community Focused Website” and mentions the author of this piece by name, the views reflected on the referenced websites do not represent SAC.Media or the author of this article.

The reporter nor publication have issued any statement for or against the measure. Any and all appearances at local events, private or public, is not indicative of support or opposition to any movements.

1 thought on “West Covina Residents Vote Down Controversial Tax Initiative

  1. This is really long, too long in fact. First responders deserve every consideration. One thing I know for sure is public safety compensation is bankrupting municipalities. Perhaps it’s time to cut our loses and contract with county since we can’t afford the compensation public safety requires.

    Like

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