A San Diego County Superior Court judge said Friday that he is "inclined" to believe that supporters of a managed-growth initiative complied with election laws in circulating petitions to qualify the issue for the ballot but delayed a final ruling until later this month.
In a legal skirmish widely seen as a harbinger of a bitter political campaign, Judge James Milliken stopped just short of dismissing a complaint filed by initiative opponents charging that the measure's backers violated a new state law by not specifying on the petitions that signatures were being solicited by both paid circulators and volunteers.
City attorneys and representatives for Prevent Los Angelization Now!, or PLAN, however, argued Friday that, because San Diego has its own charter and election code, it is not bound by the new state law in the case of the proposed initiative.
"I'm inclined to agree with you," Milliken told Chief Deputy City Atty. Alan Sumption.
However, Milliken added that he sympathizes with the coalition of real estate consultants and economists trying to invalidate the nearly 83,000 signatures gathered by PLAN "about the public policy aspect" of their suit.
By that statement, Milliken implied that he concurs with opponents' contention that the state law requiring disclosure of paid circulators' activity better informs people about the nature of any initiative petitions they are asked to sign.
Nevertheless, Milliken emphasized that the debate over the advisability of such a requirement is "a political question . . . to be resolved by some legislative body," not a legal question to be settled by a court.
The central question facing him, Milliken noted, is whether city or state election laws prevail in regard to procedures governing the circulation of local initiative petitions. And it is on that pivotal point, Milliken said on several occasions during Friday's hearing, that he finds himself siding with PLAN and city attorneys.
However, Bob Ottilie, the opponents' attorney, argued that the initiative disclosure issue at the heart of the case is of statewide, not merely local, import. If Milliken accepts that premise, he could rule that the state law supersedes the local election provision, Ottilie said.
Though Milliken gave no reason for not issuing a final ruling Friday--his written opinion could come as early as next week--Ottilie speculated after the hearing that the judge postponed his action to ponder that question.
"I don't think he would have (delayed a ruling) if he did not have some second thoughts," Ottilie said. PLAN attorney Mark Aaronson, however, characterized Ottilie's remark as little more than wishful thinking and an attempt to cast a hearing--at which he heard little else to be positive about--in the best possible light.
"I think the judge recognizes this is an important issue and simply wanted to spend some time to put together his thoughts," Aaronson said. "But he made it pretty clear how he sees this case."
Friday's hearing came two days after the San Diego County voter registrar's office estimated that nearly 81%, or about 67,000, of the 82,455 signatures turned in two weeks ago by PLAN were valid--more than enough to meet the 56,585-name requirement needed to qualify for the ballot.
Barring a court's intervention, the verification of the PLAN petitions leaves the San Diego City Council with the choice of either adopting the initiative as an ordinance or placing it on the June, 1992, citywide primary ballot.
PLAN officials argue that the proposed initiative would help ensure that builders pay their fair share for public services necessitated by new development. Critics, however, contend that it would virtually halt growth, dramatically increasing housing costs.
During Friday's hearing, both Sumption and Aaronson stressed that the California Constitution specifies that charter cities may establish their own election procedures. Because the San Diego City Council has not added the state law requiring identification of paid circulators on signature petitions to the city's own election code, that provision does not apply to the PLAN initiatives, the city attorney added.
"I don't know how much clearer they could make it," Sumption said.
Though Milliken made it clear that he largely agrees with that assessment, Ottilie sensed an opening when the judge conceded that, philosophically, he saw some merit to the real estate group's contention that the state law promotes greater disclosure about proposed initiatives to those registered voters who are asked to sign petitions to get the measures on the ballot.
"All the way down the line, (PLAN has) tried to conceal who's behind the initiative and what the initiative does," Ottilie said.
Claiming that the issue raises a question of statewide import, Ottilie sought to convince Milliken that he has the authority to rule that the state law takes precedence without violating the state constitution. PLAN and the city's attorneys, however, differed.
"It is not a matter of statewide concern," Sumption responded. "Local elections are matters of local concern."