‘Bell assessed illegal sewer fees’ (September 3)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

This story was one of the more straightforward of the series — one issue, one conclusion — but also one of the more difficult for readers to accept.

The issue and conclusion were given in the lede:

The city of Bell assessed property owners for sewer fees without getting required voter approval, according to the state controller’s office. (1)

So the issue was, “What is the controller’s office’s view of the legality of Bell’s sewer fees?” (This construction of the issue is better than the broader interpretation of “Are Bell’s sewer fees legal?” because the reporters draw from and discuss only the controller’s views.) The conclusion was that “the office concluded that Bell illegally assessed sewer fees by not ‘getting required voter approval’.”

The reporters relied on “a letter to the city obtained by The Times,” attributed to Controller John Chiang, to justify their conclusion about his views. The reporters first paraphrased the letter as saying that “Bell property owners overpaid $621,737 in fees that were illegally increased in 2007” (2).

The reporters then quoted the letter directly:

Bell officials initially were “in full agreement with our finding,” Chiang wrote. But they later “suggested that the property tax levy in question may not have required a vote of property owners” and requested more time to research it.

“I urge you to quickly complete your review so that, if the increased levy was indeed an unallowable assessment, the City of Bell will have sufficient time to reduce the assessment for FY 2010–11,” he wrote, referring to tax bills due in November. (5–6)

Returning to paraphrasing, the reporters wrote that Chiang’s letter said Bell would have to prove to the controller that the levy did not require voter approval if the city concluded so, and that “nothing in the documents from Bell so far would justify the increase” (9).

It quickly became clear that the reporters faced a fairly serious evidence problem. They concluded that the controller’s office believed the sewer fee to be illegal. Their evidence for this claim was the controller’s letter.

But the controller’s letter did not reject Bell’s argument that the rate increase might have not required voter approval, and hence would not have been illegal. The most that could be said was that the controller had not yet seen any evidence that would have demonstrated that the increase was legal. Were the reporters to rely on this statement to justify their conclusion that the controller considered the fees illegal, it would have represented the fallacy of argument from ignorance — arguing that something is true based on an absence of evidence to the contrary.

The controller had not said the tax was illegal, which was the message of the headline and lede. The reporters’ paraphrase of the letter as discussing “fees that were illegally increased” (2) was outweighed by the direct quotation of the controller that “if the increased levy was indeed an unallowable assessment, the City of Bell will have…” (6, emphasis added). “If,” not “because.” So the controller did not appear to be certain — yet — that the fees were illegally raised.

In short, the reporters did readers who wanted to learn what was true about the world, especially the controller, a disservice. The reporters appear to have overstated the seriousness of the controller’s letter in both headline and lede.

Alternatively, the controller’s letter might have contained the contradiction entailed in the reporting. In that case, it would have been useful for the reporters to clarify.

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