Commentary : Get Politicians Out of Initiative Process
The best part of the initiative process is that it allows us to take action rather than merely gripe. And it has been responsible for getting millions of people involved in the democratic process through active sponsor groups.
But there is one active group that has no place in the initiative process: our own elected officials. They are tampering with the basic process. Simply put, the initiative is the peoples’ tool to write law. It is a powerful control to correct elected officials when the voters sense a lack of representation.
And, when elected politicians interfere with the people’s correction effort, it simply confirms the voters’ suspicions. Indeed, much of the frustration with ballot issues results from meddling by elected officials.
Nowhere is the politicians’ interference as rampant as it is on growth-control initiatives. And it is here that officials have inflicted the most damage. Any discussion of officials meddling in initiatives illuminates an even more basic problem in American politics: the inequitable influence that well-funded self-interest groups have on elected officials. In the case of growth, it’s the enormous influence that developers have on City Hall and the county Board of Supervisors.
The business of politicians influencing growth measures has been practiced in several California communities. But in recent years the officials have been going for a knock-out punch.
In North County communities, there has been a rash of city councils who have fought the very people who voted for them. In Vista, the council responded to a citizen initiative with what appeared to be an even stronger growth measure, and, in turn, defeated the grass-roots effort. But the officials and developers had the last laugh because they tucked away enough loopholes and exceptions in their measure to make the law a toothless tiger. Vista’s growth has boomed under the council’s so-called “strong growth controls.”
In Carlsbad, the skills of the City Council and special interest developers showed new creativity by including a “killer clause” that stopped the citizens initiative, even though it was passed by the voters.
In Oceanside, the developers shelled out support for the council’s empty measure and outspent the citizens by 20 to 1. The grass-roots initiative won, but now the council is stalling implementation.
Those who have been through the experience say the initiative process has been damaged. Slow-growth activists are concerned that the tampering is getting worse.
The tampering comes in a two-step effort: First the politicians create a decoy measure, which they put on the ballot. The decoy, complete with a motherhood title, will contain enough exceptions, loopholes and lack of specifics to render it benign. Next, the developers funnel plenty of money into cleverly named political action committees (PACs). These PACs conduct a media blitz to defeat the grass-roots effort and install the decoy.
Why don’t the developers just write their own initiatives like other people? Because, with the elected officials as authors of the decoy, it can be put on the ballot without any requirement for gathering signatures. Further, the public would never vote for a developer-sponsored initiative. Contrast that to grass-roots folks who must gather about 80,000 signatures to place an initiative on the county ballot.
Now, the officials’ open assault has arrived in the city of San Diego and the whole of San Diego County. Citizens have placed growth-control initiatives, Propositions D and J, on the ballot. Right on cue, the supervisors and City Council have reacted by placing their decoys, Propositions B and H. And just as important as the yes or no vote on growth controls is whether the initiative process itself will survive.
There is plenty of bad faith to go around. Proof of bad faith is the fact that the officials could just schedule a meeting and vote their Propositions B and H into law at any time if their effort was sincere. So why don’t they? Because they have used the decoys as a carrier for the lethal “killer clause,” which is the real purpose of Propositions B and H.
Just how empty are Propositions B and H? In the case of the San Diego City Council measure, Proposition H, it provides that the council can change key provisions without returning the measure to the voters. It is an insult to the sensibilities of the public to vote on a measure that has a loophole allowing later changes at the council’s pleasure.
The supervisors’ Proposition B has so many exceptions that they had to alphabetize them. The exceptions start with A and run through Q. And its growth controls are so empty they hinge on a series of political promises. Even the supervisors acknowledge that Proposition B is void of “quality-of-life” specifics and ask us to trust them. I fail to understand why we should trust the supervisors when they don’t trust the people’s initiative process.
If they want our trust, let them show good faith by first announcing a withdrawal of their decoys. Since Propositions B and H serve primarily as carriers for the “killer clause,” nothing worthwhile would be lost in their withdrawal. The citizen-sponsored measures, Propositions D and J, could then be voted yes or no on their own merits, with clear vision.
Short of a rare statesman’s act of withdrawal by the politicians, can the voters do anything to stop the elected officials from tampering with our initiative process?
Yes, we can take control by voting no on the decoys on Election Day, Nov. 8. That’s right, vote no on Propositions B and H. That will be a powerful rebuff and embarrassment to the supervisors and City Council, and will show we are smart enough to see through their interference with our process. The no vote carries clear messages: No more decoys, hands off, the initiative process belongs to we the people.