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May 13, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

Suits against districts merged Suits against districts merged (May 13, 2005)

By Michele Leung

Four local school districts and the hospital district have scored a small victory after a Santa Clara Superior Court judge agreed to consolidate the lawsuits against them because they are so similar.

Aaron Katz, a Saratoga resident, has filed suit against the El Camino Hospital District, the Mountain View-Whisman School District, the West Valley-Mission Community College District and the Campbell Union High School District, which was added to the consolidated suit. His suit argues that recent elections in which voters passed parcel taxes and bond measures should be declared invalid because, as a property owner with land within district boundaries, Katz wasn't allowed to vote.

Judge Kevin McKenney ruled in late April on the consolidation of the lawsuits and will assign a trial date in two weeks.

The districts insist that the suit is baseless.

"(Mountain View-Whisman) continues to vigorously pursue its interests," said John Yeh, who is representing the district.

At stake for the school district is the $1.6 million annual parcel tax, which has been earmarked for teacher resources and programs in art and music -- "those things people would consider normal programs for schools," said school finance chief Rebecca Wright.

She added that 69 percent of the voters said yes last spring to Measure J, and that their decision shouldn't be dismissed.

As for El Camino, should Katz win his lawsuit, the hospital district would be forced to push back its seismic retrofit from September 2005 to March 2006. It has already canceled its bond sale from Measure D, expected to generate $148 million. The bonds were to go on sale in April.

"We don't believe there is any merit to the case, but the bonds can't be sold until we've received a favorable ruling from the court," said Jon Friedenberg, hospital vice president of resource development.

The hospital retrofit involves expanding and upgrading the emergency room and constructing a new patient building. El Camino must meet new seismic standards by 2008.

"The problem is that he's holding up the project," Friedenberg said, "but the state is expecting us to meet the deadline. We can't satisfy both Mr. Katz' novel view of how to organize a society with the state's requirement that we remain open in the aftermath of an earthquake."

Measure D was approved in 2003 by 70 percent of the voters.

At least one local expert is siding with the districts. Ed Steinman, a professor of constitutional law at Santa Clara University, thinks that Katz' case doesn't have merit, adding that other districts who are looking on with interest should not be too worried.

"Historically, people have voted where they live," he said.

According to Steinman, there are some exceptions in Central California, where water districts have given voting rights to those not living within district boundaries, and the same would apply to the local districts only if similar statutes are in place. However, Steinman, who is following the case, added that Katz is making his case in the wrong arena.

"Voting changes are made by legislative bodies," Steinman said.

Nevertheless, Katz isn't willing to back down. "I can't comment on how other people feel about it," he said. "If it were so simple, if the case were so stupid, how come the judge can't make a decision?"

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