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A Victory for the Mumblers

The event rated only a small story in the paper: “Effort to Limit City Officials to Two Terms Abandoned.”

Yet, it was an intriguing bit of news. A group of activists fell short of obtaining enough signatures to place a two-term Los Angeles City Charter amendment before the voters in November. The failure didn’t make sense. The ballot’s always loaded with confusing, and often useless, measures. In a time of public outrage with City Hall, this particular proposal looked as if it should have been an electoral winner.

I found the reason for its failure in Sacramento. There, the Legislature last year--quietly--enacted a law that effectively wiped out the term-limit campaign.

First, I’ve got to explain the law. In the past, to place a proposed charter amendment on a city ballot, you needed enough signatures on petitions to equal 15% of the vote cast for governor in the last election. In Los Angeles, that amounts to 108,301 signatures.

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The new law changed that. It required 15% of all registered voters. Since gubernatorial voter turnouts are lower than voter registration, the bill had the effect of increasing the number of required signatures. In Los Angeles, it almost doubled to 205,448 signatures.

The leaders of the L.A. term limit didn’t learn about the change until they began circulating petitions. They continued the effort, but realized they’d never make 205,000 in time to make the November ballot. Last week, they gave up. Knowledgeable in Los Angeles in politics, they’d been stymied in Sacramento by one of the oldest tricks in the legislative business--mumbling a bill through the Legislature.

You mumble when you want to sneak through something that wouldn’t stand public scrutiny. You employ technical, sometimes impenetrable, language. The summary that accompanies each bill is vague and misleading. In explaining the bill to fellow lawmakers, you mumble that it makes “technical changes,” or “eliminates obsolete language.” Colleagues, with thousands of bills before them, usually take the explanation at face value and vote aye.

I first encountered the phenomenon in the early 1960s when I was covering the state Assembly for the Associated Press. Tom Arden, a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, and I shared the job of sorting and digesting the many bills introduced each day. We received carbon copies of a brief summary of each bill--scores of them on busy days. The summaries were often written in the most incomprehensible bureaucratese. If authors were skillful or lucky, nobody would notice the legislation and they’d be able to mumble it into law.

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Any time a suspected crook introduced something unintelligible, we’d check it out. That was time-consuming. For instance, we inquired about anything dealing with liquor, horse racing or oil. I’m sure we missed many a lemon.

When the Legislature went full-time in 1968, it went in for more disclosure. Committee consultants, the legislative counsel and the legislative analyst all prepared thorough analyses of each bill. These were safeguards intended to prevent the old-time sneakiness.

But they underestimated the power of mumblers, as the L.A. two-term limit people found out.

The specifics of their downfall began with a seemingly sensible proposal from the League of California Cities, an organization of mayors and city council members. Laws governing local elections were scattered through the lawbook. The league proposed putting them all in the elections code.

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The league said it merely wanted to simplify the law. So did the legislator who introduced the bill on behalf of the league, Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego). A mumble here, a mumble there, and it sailed into law.

That it created an obstacle for city initiatives, the law’s proponents said, was an unintended consequence. “It wasn’t a conspiracy,” Chacon said. “Lots of times, when legislation is enacted, we don’t know the consequences.”

There’s room, though, for a more skeptical analysis. A skeptic might wonder if there are mayors and city council members who wouldn’t mind a third or fourth term. A skeptic, too, might wonder if there aren’t some state lawmakers who would rather nip in the bud any movement toward a two-term limit.

Despite all the money the Legislature spends on staff members, no analysis of the bill mentioned the far-reaching change. And there was no debate. Chacon placed the bill on the “consent calendar,” a list of presumably routine legislation.

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“It was passed on consent in both houses under false colors,” protested Sen. Quentin L. Kopp, whose district includes San Francisco, another city where the bill interfered with a term-limit initiative. Kopp is trying to make San Francisco exempt from the new requirement, but Brown and Chacon have his bill bottled up in Chacon’s committee.

Mumble. Mumble. Mumble.


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