Initiative Mandating County Spending On Public Safety Is Unconstitutional

In Totten v. Board of Supervisors of Ventura County (2006 WL 1351614, Cal.App. 2 Dist., May 18, 2006), a California Court of Appeal considered the constitutionality of a county initiative which established a minimum annual budget for the county’s public safety agencies and mandated annual increases.

The Court found the ordinance unconstitutional because it usurped the board of supervisors’ exclusive statutory power over county spending decisions.


In 1994, a group called Citizens for a Safe Ventura County collected sufficient signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot to set minimum county spending levels for public safety agencies, such as the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices, and to require annual increases based on a formula related to inflation. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors (“Board”) then enacted the ordinance without sending it to the ballot.

In 2001 the Board decided to change the way the inflationary increases were calculated, in an effort to slow the rate of spending increases. District Attorney Gregory Totten and others filed a lawsuit in an effort to force the Board to adhere to the original spending formula. The Board argued that the ordinance violated its exclusive authority over the county budget. The trial court disagreed, denied the Board’s motion for summary judgment, and ruled the ordinance constitutional. The Board appealed.


The Court reviewed Government Code Sections 29000 to 29023, and found that they repeatedly and expressly delegate authority of the county budget to the Board. “Indeed, the term ‘board’ in sections 29000-29023 cannot be reasonably interpreted as including the electorate,” the Court said.

Additionally, the Court noted Section 25303, in which the Legislature expressly recognized the Board’s exclusive budgetary authority over the district attorney and sheriff: “Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the budgetary authority of the board of supervisors over the district attorney or sheriff.”

The Court cited the precedent of Geiger v. Board of Supervisors of Butte County (1957) 48 Cal.2d 832, in which a referendum seeking to overturn a tax increase in Butte County was voided because the California Supreme Court found that it would impair “essential government functions.” That precedent applied to this case, because the ordinance seriously impaired the Board’s essential government function of managing the county’s financial affairs. Therefore, the Court ruled the ordinance exceeded the initiative power of the electorate and was invalid.

The judgment was reversed and the ordinance voided.

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