Is “two-year” one word or two?
The answer to that question is the latest focal point in the ongoing clash between elite business interests in Anaheim and Mayor Tom Tait, a one-time establishment figure who has angered his former political allies by opposing massive taxpayer subsidies.
And the battle over semantics shows just how contentious things have become.
Tait said that by counting “two-year” as one word, the proponents of a June ballot measure to shorten the mayoral term from four years to two years pushed through publication of a ballot argument over the legal word limit.
He argued that the measure’s supporters were able to break the rules by using “manipulative politics” and said the measure itself is an attempt by the political forces he has opposed to undermine his leadership.
Meanwhile, a political consultant working for the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and who helped draft the argument said that it has nothing to do with Tait, that the mayor is splitting hairs and that the courts would never throw out a ballot argument over a minor word count issue.
Usually, measures appear on the ballot with arguments both for and against.
In this case, the argument in favor asserts the measure will increase the mayor’s accountability to voters by having more frequent mayoral elections. The counter argument states that the measure will divert the mayor’s focus from good government to constantly campaigning for election.
The city clerk at first rejected the argument favoring the measure because the 300-word limit imposed by the state’s elections code was exceeded by two words. With the submission deadline passed, there was no time to fix and resubmit.
An email chain obtained by Voice of OC shows that chamber consultant and political strategist Jeff Flint spent a good part of a weekend earlier this month in a back-and-forth exchange with the city clerk and city attorney over whether “two-year” should be counted as one word — which would put the argument at exactly 300 words — or two.
Ultimately, City Clerk Linda Andal reversed her decision.
Tait said the result of the weekend episode is blatantly illegal.
Under the elections code, for a hyphenated word to be counted as one it must appear in a generally available standard reference dictionary published over the last 10 years.
“Clearly 302 words cannot be counted as 300,” Tait said.
Flint pointed out to city officials that “two-year” appears online at dictionary.reference.com and is referred to by the definition of another word in the American Heritage Dictionary.
But City Attorney Michael Houston replied that the references weren’t enough, because dictionary.reference.com pulls definitions from other sources, and it is the underlying source that the courts look to, Houston wrote.
In this case, the source was WordNet 3.0, a Princeton University language database. Houston wrote that the source appeared to be organized more like a thesaurus. Flint replied that it was in fact a dictionary.
In reality, it’s neither.
A programmer and a university researcher managing the database stated in emails and an interview that WordNet is actually a psychological research project, an attempt to understand the organization of language in the brain.
The programmer said in no uncertain terms that it is not a standard reference dictionary. The researcher said that she didn’t know what the legal definition would be but that WordNet is not an authoritative source on the definitions of words.
“The developers were/are not professional lexicographers and never intended to produce a kind of competition to Collins, Websters, and other ‘standard’ dictionaries,” Princeton researcher Christiane Fellbaum wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “We make no claim as to its correctness or completeness.”
WordNet stretches the boundaries of what can be considered a word. For example, “two-year-old horse” appears as a single word in the database.
Why Houston and Andal ultimately reversed their decision is unclear.
Houston declined to comment on the logic behind the reversal, citing attorney-client privilege. However, he flatly denied that it had to do with political pressure.
“No, absolutely not,” Houston said. “We’re both professionals.”
Andal didn’t return a phone call for comment.
A Mayor Under Siege
While at first supported by the resort town’s political establishment, Tait has since fallen out of their good graces.
Tait argued that the city has awarded corporate subsidies to politically connected interests on an unprecedented scale. He pointed out that two recent City Council actions — $158-million tax subsidy for a single hotel developer and a convention center expansion — will drain more than $20 million annually from the general fund for the next generation.
Having been the City Council’s lone voice of opposition on such decisions, Tait said that the council majority has launched retaliations against him. They cut his policy aide’s salary by 40 percent and diminished his ability to place items on council meeting agendas.
Members of the council majority denied that the actions were retaliatory and said they were merely intended to provide equal powers between council members and the mayor.
Tait said the two-year mayoral term ballot measure is yet another attack, and he pointed to its supporters as evidence.
The charter review committee that proposed the idea was headed by Anaheim Chamber of Commerce President Todd Ament. The argument is signed by Ament and Gloria Ma’ae, a member of the advisory board for Support Our Anaheim Resort, which is a pro-Disneyland lobby group.
“Obviously, it’s not a grass-roots effort,” Tait said.
In a Voice of OC interview, Flint said that there is no “grand conspiracy” against Tait and that the discussion to make the mayor’s seat a two-year term predates Tait’s tenure and even that of his predecessor, Curt Pringle.
“If Mayor Tait is being completely honest with you, he’s probably been involved in those discussions before,” Flint said.
Flint noted that other cities in Orange County with a directly elected mayor have two-year terms for the seat and argued that the decisions to impose such limits in those cities were most likely not political.
“If you look at the body of history of Orange County, there’s no conspiracy against mayors,” Flint said. “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.”
Flint also argued that “no judge in the world” would invalidate a ballot argument over a hyphenated word squabble. The courts’ bias, Flint said, is to allow for more information, not less, citing his many years as a campaign strategist.
“I certainly hope the opponents of Measure D don’t think the public would be better served by less information,” Flint said.
“I don’t buy it,” Tait said, responding to Flint’s contention that the effort is not a political attack against him. “Jeff Flint is obviously working for some special interest group that wants greater control of the mayor’s office.”
Tait says he “believes” that Flint is a consultant for Angels Baseball. He also contended that Flint is a longtime advisor to Pringle, who works as a lobbyist for the city’s major business interests.
The mayor has waged a public relations campaign against the current Angel Stadium lease framework. His push is aimed at securing a better deal for taxpayers, he said. And it’s no secret that Pringle and Tait, once good friends, have had a bitter falling out.
Tait said he couldn’t recall previous discussions to change the mayoral term length.
And regarding Flint’s argument that the courts would have overturned Andal’s initial rejection of the argument, Tait, a lawyer, said that Flint is not.
“The rules are exact and precise for a reason,” Tait said. “I’m not afraid of the people hearing any argument, but we should all play by the same rules.”
Flint acknowledged working for the Chamber of Commerce and the “Keep the Angels” website and Facebook page, part of a chamber lobbying effort.
But Flint said Tait “believes incorrectly” that he is working for the Angels.
“People are allowed to disagree with him on public policy matters without it being a conspiracy,” Flint said.