LATHROP – Taxes and Lathrop seem to go together about as well as oil and water lately.
And now that the Lathrop City Council has made a decision that will essentially open the door for a legal challenge against the city’s Transit Occupancy Tax – also known as a room tax – after a string of high-profile arguments over the validity of the public-supported one-cent sales tax increase passed by voters in November of 2012, the battle before the city’s general election is only going to get more tumultuous.
That tends to happen when council members agree on something, then decide to change it a month later and forget that they ever agreed on it in the first place.
The tax, which has been collected by the city for years but was never formally ratified by a vote of the people, was supposed to be a slam-dunk measure that just needed the approval of the council to be placed on the ballot. As a general tax – meaning that the money isn’t specifically earmarked for any one particular thing – the measure would only have to clear the 50-percent-plus-one hurdle instead of the much more difficult two-thirds.
One council member, Paul Akinjo, said that he didn’t remember seeing the ballot language in the format that was presented before him when the council met during a special meeting earlier this month. That notion was dispelled when City Attorney Salvador Navarrete said that it was the exact wording that was presented to him a month earlier. Vice Mayor Omar Ornelas made a similar slipup when he asked whether it would be appropriate to assume that the decision on final language would rest with the council. Navarrete reiterated that the council had approved two resolutions that gave the green light to the ballot language just 30 days before the special meeting.
And while the anti-tax campaign is being lodged by a truck stop owner who claims that the public was fleeced when they were talked into voting for Measure C two years ago – even going so far as to threaten litigation if it isn’t amended or put back before the voters – it’s that same local businessman that owns the 81-room Holiday Inn Express that serves I-5 traffic passing through the South County.
And that same businessman, Dalwinder Dhoot, was listed in the summary judgment by the California Fair Political Practices Commission against Mayor Sonny Dhaliwal for campaign finance irregularities – one of a handful of donors who made contributions in 2010 that weren’t formally deposited to the campaign’s account until 2013. Dhaliwal did not recuse himself from making any decision during the special meeting when council members were asked to declare any possible conflicts of interest.
By waiting to ratify the TOT tax the city opens itself up to a legal challenge. At least three lawsuits have been brought against municipalities since 1997, challenging various aspects – all of which were in communities that didn’t go to a public vote to ratify the official position.