Court Refuses to Rewrite Ballot Descriptions

Times Staff Writer

Despite expressing concern that ballot summaries of two rival growth initiatives could mislead San Diego voters in November, a Superior Court judge on Monday rejected a citizen group's request for changes in the descriptions of their own slow-growth measure and a City Council-backed alternative.

In dismissing a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Limited Growth, Judge James Milliken said that, although he was troubled by some of the sample-ballot language, he feared that ordering any changes could disrupt printing of the ballots, scheduled to begin today.

Milliken also questioned whether, under state election law, he could actually order the City Council to change the ballot descriptions, which were drafted by the city attorney's office. Milliken said he feels he can only instruct the council to reconsider the issue, which again could jeopardize "going forward with the election in an orderly fashion."

"I can't simply substitute the language I'd prefer," Milliken said. "Any order I'd make would substantially disrupt the election process."

'Rock and a Hard Place'

Although displeased with Milliken's ruling, Leo Wilson, the citizens group's attorney, said he doubts that there will be time to appeal before the ballots are printed.

Nevertheless, Peter Navarro, one of the leaders of the citizens group, said late Monday that the group plans to file an appeal today.

In the suit, leaders of Citizens for Limited Growth contended that vague wording and omissions in the ballot summaries failed to clearly distinguish between the group's initiative, Proposition J, and the council's less-stringent growth-management alternative, Proposition H. The suit also charged that the use of "beauty words" in the summary on Proposition H could make that measure sound more palatable to voters.

One of the changes sought by the group would have required the summary of the city's measure to specify that its proposed annual building cap of 7,590 residential units does not include exemptions for low-income housing and redevelopment areas, including downtown. The citizens group's initiative, which would restrict residential development within the city to as few as 4,000 units annually by mid-1991, has no such exemptions.

The ballot summary's failure to mention the exemptions in Proposition H, Wilson argued, "misleads the voters . . . (because) you don't have a cap when you open the top of it. In fact, there is no cap because you don't know how many units will be built downtown."

Milliken conceded that he is concerned that the omission of the exceptions "is potentially misleading." But, Milliken added, "whether it is substantially misleading . . . is very much up in the air."

In the absence of proof that the ballot summary is clearly misleading or erroneous, Milliken said, he could not alter the wording, particularly at the risk of delaying printing of the ballots.

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Connie McCormick said during Monday's hearing that 177 "special absentee" voters--individuals who, for example, live abroad or where mail delivery is sporadic--have already received their ballots.

Citing that fact, Deputy City Atty. Cristie McGuire argued that, even though the ballots for the rest of the city's 565,000 registered voters had not yet been printed, any changes Monday would "substantially interfere" with the election.

"Those 177 votes count," McGuire said. "That's what our election process is all about."

Wilson contended that the 177 votes represent a minuscule portion of the total electorate. Wilson also complained that the ballot summary of the council's measure "is much more explanative," giving Proposition H an unfair advantage. For example, he noted that the Proposition H summary defines "sensitive lands"--environmentally sensitive areas such as hillsides and wetlands that would be protected under both measures--but the summary of Proposition J does not.

Last month, after the citizens' group had complained about the original ballot summaries, the city attorney's office redrafted descriptions that included item-by-item comparisons between the rival measures. The City Council, however, rejected the changes.

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