Pilar Arballo thinks she'd stand a decent chance of getting elected to the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education if the game were being played on a level field.
But she enters the March 2 primary election at a distinct disadvantage-as a write-in candidate-and she believes her predicament is a direct result of her potential to beat Ben Hueso, the man considered to be the district's candidate of choice.
In December, both Arballo and Acle, along with a third District D candidate, Guadalupe Corona, were disqualified from the ballot after all three failed to gather enough voter signatures. Under city election guidelines, school board candidates must collect at least 200 signatures from registered voters living within their district's boundary lines. By comparison, candidates for San Diego City Council need to collect only 100 voter signatures and mayoral candidates a mere 65 signatures. Only one District D school board candidate, Ben Hueso, managed to collect the requisite amount.
Early last month, school district lawyers waived the district's right to challenge District D school board candidate Luis Acle's petition to get his name on the March 2 ballot. Six days later, however, those same lawyers opposed a similar lawsuit brought by Arballo, another District D hopeful and a former teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary and Memorial Junior High schools who in the past has publicly criticized district Supt. Alan Bersin's Blueprint for Student Success reform program.
School district lawyers initially claimed they had no time to put together a response to Acle's lawsuit, filed on Dec. 31 when their office was closed for the holidays, and for that reason opted not to oppose his petition. But court records show that Acle's attorney, Michael Wilson, gave the school district until Jan. 8 to file a response-six full days from when attorneys presumably received notice of the lawsuit on Jan. 2.
Wilson told CityBeat that district lawyers showed up at a Jan. 2 preliminary hearing and waived the right to challenge Acle's lawsuit. The county Registrar of Voters office also waived its right to oppose Acle's petition. Wilson said Superior Court Judge Patricia Cowett told him that both the school district and registrar had to be given the opportunity to respond to Acle's suit.
On Jan. 6, Arballo, too, declared her intent to sue the school district and Registrar of Voters to get her name on the ballot. She told CityBeat she had considered mounting a legal challenge since being informed Dec. 9 that she failed to qualify for the ballot.
At a Jan. 7 preliminary hearing, Judge Ronald Prager told Arballo's attorney, Heather Boxeth, that she must also inform Acle and Hueso about the lawsuit in case either wanted to oppose it.
A statement filed with the court shows that, like with Acle, the registrar had no problem with Arballo's petition and didn't plan to challenge it. On Jan. 9, however, not only were school district attorneys prepared to oppose Arballo, but Hueso, too, had hired an L.A. attorney to prevent Arballo from getting her name on the ballot.
The crux of Acle's and Arballo's arguments was that the number of valid signatures they collected showed “substantial compliance” with the law-an argument that worked for City Council District 4 candidate Wes Pratt in 1987. Acle collected 282 signatures, only 173 of which were valid. Arballo collected 350 signatures-176 of them were valid. Arballo said a number of those signatures were from registered voters in District D who had recently moved but hadn't updated their address with the Registrar of Voters. She said it had been her understanding that those signatures would count.
In arguing against Arballo's petition, both the school district and Hueso's attorney brought up an appeals-court decision in which a candidate running for Los Angeles City Council was denied a place on the ballot after she failed to collect the required number of signatures. Prager concurred and denied Arballo's petition.
School district Assistant General Counsel Ricardo Soto told CityBeat that Sandra Chong, who represented the school district at Acle's Jan. 2 hearing, felt that Judge Cowett was predisposed to granting Acle's petition, and for that reason Chong opted not to take the extra time to review case law and come up with a defense. When it came to Arballo's case, “Once we had time to look at the cases,” said Soto, “case law was pretty clear that if you don't have the signatures, you don't get on the ballot.”
When asked why district legal counsel didn't at least take advantage of attorney Wilson's offer to give them more time to research the case, Soto countered that it was Wilson's responsibility to introduce to the court the appellate case involving the L.A. City Council candidate. “There's an ethics rule as an attorney that you're supposed to present all pertinent case law regarding a particular issue,” said Soto. Even if it's an adverse case, he said, it would have been Wilson's obligation to cite the case and argue why it doesn't apply to his client.
“Mr. Wilson failed to provide the case that was clearly... adverse to his client's position,” said Soto.
Wilson told CityBeat that the L.A. case was unknown to him at the time of Acle's hearing.
“Due to the severe time constraints for filing the petition,” he said in an e-mail (ballots were scheduled to be printed Jan. 12), “an exhaustive search of all California cases could not be achieved. Thus, there was no intentional-I repeat, no intentional-withholding of information from the court.
“If Mr. Soto read the brief,” said Wilson, “he would concede that Mr. Acle's analysis did indeed cite opposing cases in the brief. Thus, Mr. Acle fully complied with the law and all requirements to be candid with the Court.”
Wilson said Judge Cowett ruled in favor of his client's petition because the school district waived its right to oppose it.
“For Mr. Soto to suggest that if the school board had been informed of all cases they could have used to support their opposition by Mr. Acle, then and only then they would have opposed, is disingenuous.”
Boxeth, Arballo's attorney, said she believes the school district saw Acle as no threat to Hueso in the election and therefore did not oppose his petition. Arballo, unlike Hueso, has said that, if elected, she'd like to see the school board buy out Bersin's contract. “By adding Pilar's name [to the ballot], the competition for votes becomes much more intense,” said Boxeth.
San Diego school board Trustee Fran Zimmerman calls it “the most selective application of the law” she's ever seen.
Hueso said Arballo's lawsuit was, in his opinion, misguided. “She should have tried to get Luis Acle taken off the ballot,” he pointed out.
“Arballo's making it seem that we don't want her to be on the board,” said Hueso, “that the school district doesn't want her-and that may be so. However, nobody prevented her from collecting her signatures.”
Arballo said that friends helped her collect signatures and might not have been clear to people that they needed to lived in the district to sign the petition.
Write-in candidates for school board are required to collect an additional 200 signatures from voters in their district, which were due Feb. 17. Arballo said she got hers in early and they all qualified.
She said she figures that she'll need at least 5,000 votes to finish in the top two spots and make it to the general election in November.