Petitions on Rent Control Initiative Ruled Illegal

Times Staff Writer

In a major blow to sponsors of a rent control initiative, Santa Monica's city attorney has ruled that petitions being circulated to qualify the measure for the November ballot are illegal.

City Atty. Robert M. Myers also ruled that petitions for a measure limiting campaign contributions are similarly invalid. The measure would limit the amount of an individual's contributions to a candidate to $500.

The decision may kill the measures for November's ballot. Both were being sponsored by the city's dominant political faction, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights.

Myers' ruling came in response to a challenge from Santa Monica lawyer Christopher M. Harding, who had warned he would sue to stop the petitions from being accepted.

The rent control measure, aimed at closing what sponsors called loopholes in the law, had generated the most controversy because it sought to apply rent control to two- and three-unit buildings occupied by their owners. Those buildings have been exempt since the rent control law was enacted in 1979.

Myers, author of the original rent control law, instructed the City Clerk's office not to accept the petitions.

In an opinion issued Thursday, Myers said the petitions are invalid because the texts of the proposed charter amendments are written on the back of the petitions rather than on the front, where people are asked to sign.

"It is our opinion that the petitions are confusing and misleading," he said.

"These petitions increase the probability of confusion as to the content of the proposed amendments and the likelihood that electors will be ill-informed as to the true import of the petitions they are being asked to sign."

Stunned by Ruling

Members of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights were stunned by the ruling. In initial reactions on Thursday, they said they would consider challenging Myers' opinion legally or look for another way to get the measures on the ballot.

But they acknowledged that time was running out.

"This kills the measure. I'm extremely disappointed," said Julie Lopez Dad, a commissioner on the Rent Control Board and a member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. "We were absolutely committed to getting this done."

"If we had to revise (the petitions) and do it over again, we probably would not have time to qualify for this ballot," said Dennis Zane, a City Councilman and member of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights. "But there are other ballots."

The group's executive committee called an emergency meeting to discuss Myers' ruling.

Fraught With Problems

Sponsors had been circulating petitions since mid-May. About 5,400 signatures are needed by June 10 to qualify a measure for the November ballot.

The rent control measure has been fraught with problems from the start. Papers for it were filed with the city clerk's office and then withdrawn because of technical flaws.

Sponsors thought it was doomed--until Myers ruled the measure did not have to carry a title and summary, as some initiatives do. That saved sponsors much-needed time and permitted them to go ahead with their petitions.

In a related development, Santa Monica homeowners last week sued the Rent Control Board over a decision by the board that will allegedly make it more difficult for owners of small properties to demolish and rebuild.

The board on May 26 repealed a regulation that had permitted owners of property that is exempt from rent control--owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes as well as single-family houses with a rental unit--to demolish without obtaining a removal permit.

Precursor to Demolition

A removal permit is a permit, issued by the board, that allows an owner to remove the property from the rental housing stock. It is considered precursory to a demolition permit, which is issued by the city.

Previously, owners of exempt property have not had to obtain removal permits when they wanted to tear down their building.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Santa Monica Superior Court, contend the board's action May 26 was an effort to achieve administratively what the rent control initiative was seeking to do: Expand rent control to previously exempt property.

"The most dangerous part of the proposed initiative has already been put into effect by the board," Harding, who represents the homeowners, said in explaining that Myers' ruling on the initiative petitions would not stop the lawsuit.

"The board is making a head-on attack on homeowners."

'Permanently Stuck'

The plaintiffs contend the board's new policy will leave homeowners "permanently stuck" with rental units they don't want.

Rent Control Board commissioners defended their action, saying that the regulation that was repealed had, in fact, improperly created a new category of removals that was not foreseen in the rent control law.

By allowing owners of small properties to demolish without removal permits and with no requirement for replacement housing, the city's rental housing stock was being depleted, Lopez Dad said.

Saying she had "fully expected" a lawsuit, Lopez Dad added: "We are convinced that we will be on the winning side."

Susan Davis, who chairs the Rent Control Board, said eligible owners of small buildings who want to demolish their property "shouldn't have any difficulty" in obtaining removal permits.

'Not Prohibiting Demolitions'

"The door is not being shut on any of these properties," Davis said. "We are not prohibiting demolitions."

But Harding contended it is extremely difficult to obtain removal permits. He said he planned to seek a temporary restraining order to bar the city from using the board's decision to deny or delay demolition permits.

The plaintiffs are three Santa Monica homeowners, Catherine Quinn, Amy Luo and James Dicus, who want to build a house or condominiums on their respective properties.

They are joined in the suit by Concerned Homeowners of Santa Monica, which claims about 3,000 members. The organization is part of a lawsuit for the first time.

"We never dreamt the Rent Control Board would back us into a corner like this," said Penny Perlman, a representative of the group. "We have no choice."

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