How a Group of Mental Health Patients May Have Defeated a Sales Tax Measure in Coalinga

In 2016, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 2466, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City). It restored voting rights to thousands of felons not currently serving time in state or federal prisons.

Fast forward to 2017 and it appears the new state law has made all the difference for a crucial sales tax initiative in Coalinga, California.

Measure C, which was needed to spare 23 city jobs, failed by just 33 votes last Tuesday, 578 to 545. County Clerk Brandi Orth has since confirmed that 304 of the total votes cast came from people interned at the Coalinga State Hospital, which houses 1,000 sexually violent predators and other individuals with severe psychiatric illnesses.

Having annexed the state-owned hospital years ago, anyone legally allowed to vote may participate in local elections. Thanks to AB 2466, most of Coalinga’s inmates now fall under this category.

The facility was the site of an intense lobbying effort against Measure C and most of the patients ended up opposing it. As one of them explained, the measure “would force them to pay a couple pennies extra for a cheeseburger in the hospital cafeteria,” according to the Fresno Bee.

But there was more to it than that. The patients wanted a new shuttle service to and from the hospital in exchange for their votes. They also wanted the city to do something about taxi drivers who refuse to take passengers to and from the facility. The city didn’t meet their demands, so most of them remained opposed.

The patients don’t deny that they helped defeat the tax.

“Our bloc is large, informed and active,” said Robert S. Turner, the community liaison for the Detainee-Americans for Civic Equality (DACE) which helped lead the effort against Measure C. He spent 12 years in state hospitals -- including six at Coalinga -- for committing lewd acts with a child under 14.

Mayor Nathan Vosburg blames Gov. Jerry Brown for signing AB 2466 into law. While he accepts the results of the election, Vosburg said the pivotal role Coalinga inmates played might not sit well with some residents.

“The people have spoken, and I stand behind the will of the people,” the mayor said. “However, I do not think that the voters of Coalinga are going to be happy to know that patients at the Coalinga State Hospital may have swayed this vote in an attempt to bring the city to spend funds during a budget crisis on projects like taxi services.”

That’s probably a safe bet.


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