Slow-Growth Drive Falters; Backers Begin Last-Ditch Try

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Sponsors of the controversial slow-growth ballot initiative said Monday that their petition drive has fallen short and that they are mounting a last-ditch effort to collect additional signatures as the Feb. 9 filing deadline approaches.

"We made a mistake, and the petition drive is in trouble," said a letter mailed Friday to 8,800 supporters of the initiative. "Our worst fears are being realized. We are running out of time, and we still need 15,000 signatures."

Signed by San Juan Capistrano rancher Tom Rogers, a key sponsor of the Citizens Sensible Growth and Traffic Control initiative, the letter asks supporters to collect 10 signatures each and turn them in within 10 days.

Some critics, including former Supervisor Bruce Nestande, claimed that proponents are merely scaring volunteers into working harder to create a 20% cushion of extra signatures above the 66,000 needed to place the measure on the countywide ballot in June. The cushion is needed, political experts say, because initiative drives typically produce a large number of signatures that are disqualified.

But even as volunteers in San Clemente on Monday became the first in Orange County to file signature petitions with authorities, initiative co-sponsor Russ Burkett said the campaign had only 45,000 signatures "in hand" as of last week and an unknown number that have been collected but not turned in by volunteers throughout the county.

Rogers, who only two weeks ago claimed to have 60,000 signatures, acknowledged Monday that he had included thousands believed to be held by volunteers, plus thousands expected from a recent mailing.

"Actually, I may not have been that far off," Rogers said, noting that the San Clemente volunteers gave him more than 5,000 signatures at San Clemente City Hall on Monday morning, bringing the number in hand to 50,000, plus about 10,000 still held by petition circulators.

Still, the possibility that initiative sponsors have grossly exaggerated the number of signatures they have collected rankled Nestande, who tried unsuccessfully two weeks ago to get Rogers and the supervisors interested in a proposed compromise that would have ended the petition drive.

"I told Tom (Rogers) then that he better be able to say he had this thing qualified," Nestande said, "because if the talks with supervisors fell apart and he was unable to produce the signatures, he and other leaders of the movement would be town fools."

Nestande said he doubts that the initiative is in trouble because "then Tom missed what was probably his last opportunity to negotiate something close to what the movement wanted two weeks ago, and he's smart enough to realize that."

Nestande said he believes that his proposed compromise, which would have created a new agency to coordinate development and traffic plans, would be good for the county even if there was no threat of a slow-growth initiative, but he said "imminent qualification" of the initiative helped create an atmosphere in which negotiations seemed inevitable.

Now that has changed, Nestande said, and the slow-growth movement's credibility has been damaged. Rogers agreed that failure to submit sufficient signatures would be a major "embarrassment" and setback for the movement.

The proposed ballot measure, known as the Citizens Sensible Growth and Traffic Control initiative, would condition future growth on the ability of local roads and public services, such as police and fire departments, to handle more traffic and bigger workloads.

For the first time, petition circulators are attempting to qualify the initiative both in the unincorporated area and in each of the county's 27 cities.

Volunteers in San Clemente filed nearly 4,000 signatures with the city clerk Monday morning--the first signatures to be turned in to authorities in the 5-month-old petition drive. These signatures are in addition to the countywide drive and also would allow San Clemente residents to enact the initiative within their boundaries.

Initiative sponsors said they needed only about 1,800 to get on the ballot in San Clemente, but they collected more to qualify for a special election in June. Otherwise, sponsors said, they would have to wait until the regularly scheduled city election in November.

In San Juan Capistrano, where a similar effort is still under way, mobile home park activist Al Aarps said he is still refusing to turn over some petitions because of a risk that opponents of the measure will retaliate politically against mobile home park tenants when issues concerning such residents come before the City Council.

The Orange County district attorney's office said it will review a letter it received Monday from slow-growth lawyer Belinda N. Blacketer seeking help in resolving the issue.

Blacketer's letter stated: "We have no desire to cause Mr. Aarps any problems in this matter. . . . But we have run out of ideas and options."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade said his office was reviewing the Election Code to see if Aarps' failure to return completed petitions to initiative sponsors violates the law.

"Take me to court," Aarps said Monday. "I want a judge to order me to turn them over." Aarps contends that he was threatened with political retaliation by a politician he has declined to name.

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