What's eating Aaron Katz
Saratoga lawyer may believe in what he's doing, but his methods are madness
Those who've met Aaron Katz in person describe him as an average-looking man in his late 50s, slightly on the short side, slightly portly, with salt-and-pepper hair and large-rimmed glasses. In the courtroom at least, he has a manner in keeping with his e-mail persona: sarcastic and confrontational, with a tone of exasperation.
According to California State Bar records, Katz earned his law degree from Santa Clara University, and has been eligible to practice law off and on since 1973. He lives in Saratoga, but owns property around the county, including in Mountain View.
It is not clear if Katz has retired from practicing law — his member status, inactive since 2000, was reactivated only last month — but he seems to stay busy as a landlord and property manager.
In January 2004, Katz filed suit against an upcoming parcel tax measure for the Mountain View-Whisman School District (Measure J passed that March, by 69 percent), kicking off a new phase in his career as a fighter of district tax measures. He has since filed suits against the El Camino Hospital District, the West Valley-Mission Community College District, the Campbell Union High School District and, most recently, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.
Even though he's never scored a legal victory, at least two of his lawsuits — against El Camino and West Valley-Mission — ended well for Katz: The former district paid him $200,000, the latter $60,000, to make his suits go away.
Katz' reasoning for his suits has always hinged on two unrelated points:
1) District tax measures are unfair and unconstitutional. This is because non-landowners (like Katz' Mountain View renters) can vote on them but don't have to pay for them, and because some landowners (like Katz) can't vote on them since they live outside the district.
2) Districts are run by greedy and incompetent officials who don't deserve any more taxpayer money.
Arguing these points with Katz is slow going when he's on the defensive, because his writing, shot through with insults and faux-legalese ("notwithstanding and insofar as your comment request is concerned ...") can get loopy. Here's an example from a May e-mail to a Voice reporter, in which he remarks on his settlement with El Camino and presages the coming fight with Foothill-De Anza:
"Insofar as your comment 'and what you think the settlements mean for voter rights' I have a question for you. Name me anyone in this community; anyone; who has come forward to do anything for voter rights? Assuming you can't come up with anyone, there aren't any voters whose rights are affected.
"Now may I suggest you make more productive use of your time examining the Foothill-De Anza Community College District's Measure C on this June's ballot? You should be running a comprehensive examination of that measure which lacks merit. ... this new tax measure has nothing to do with fixing the college and everything to do with more administrative overhead."
Katz sees corruption everywhere, and believes news entities like the Voice don't care to report it because we have an agenda of our own. The districts are on the make, he says, taxpayers are getting bilked, and we won't point this out because, for us, the ends justify the means.
No districts are spared Katz' gaze. In an e-mail to me last week, he ran through a long analysis meant to demonstrate that local high school districts (which rely totally on property taxes) are ill-run. The system, he wrote, "is an infrastructure which has been created to employ people, and in many instances, at obscenely high salaries."
"Now go through the same analysis for community college districts," he wrote. "Same result." He listed more districts — library, park, hospital, water, vector control — and after each of them, "same result."
Everywhere it's the same: beleaguered landowners preyed upon by insatiable local districts, who gladly take advantage of the feckless majority of non-landowning voters. The usual notion of class war is turned on its head.
As he often does, Katz ended his recent message with an ominous word of warning:
"The day is going to come when local agencies have extracted as much from landowners as they're able to extract. When that happens, they're going to turn to your non-landowning 'locals.' And just to make things fair, I hope they'll let only nonresident and non-natural person landowners vote on the proposition of whether non-landowning residents should be taxed as much as they.
"When the shoe's on the other foot, it will be very interesting to see how your story changes. I'll be watching."
From this language, you might have thought Katz was talking about something more sinister than your local vector control district. But there is no middle ground with Aaron Katz — which is probably the most salient fact driving these lawsuits.
Ends vs. means
Many people have offered me their opinion of Katz, and the main problem they have with him is not his underlying ideas. In fact, though he may not believe it, many of his critics (including me) see kernels of truth there: The tax system in California is unfair; many districts can be run more efficiently.
Katz' problem isn't just that these complaints are lost beneath all the bitterness and extremism (which they are). It's the way he goes about voicing them. He's not the first lawyer to use lawsuits as personal protest. But particularly when it comes to bond measures — since no district can issue bonds with a lawsuit hanging over them — Katz has touched a weakness which cripples our current system, without even the merit of resolving, legally or politically, the issues he raises.
So the districts are left twisting in the wind until his suits are resolved, which can take any amount of time. While the bonds are held up, projects are held up, costing many millions ($140 million in the case of El Camino Hospital). Two districts decided that even victory wasn't worth the cost, and settled. It remains to be seen what Foothill-De Anza will do.
Barring a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future, it is unlikely Katz will change his mind about his methods, or anything else, anytime soon. And given the slow pace of the courts, it looks like his strategy will continue to work against districts hoping to issue bonds. This makes a legal solution untenable — but a legislative solution has never properly been explored.
I call on this region's representatives, particularly state Assembly member Sally Lieber, to look for a way to close this loophole, so that our local agencies can go about their business without a one-man cloud hanging over their heads. Maybe then we talk about fixing the tax system.
Don Frances is editor of the Mountain View Voice.