An initiative that would have let voters consider reinstating the Oxnard Planning Commission fell 345 signatures short of the number needed to qualify for next fall's ballot.
"I'm really sorry we missed it because I think there's a message there for the City Council, even though we had some technical difficulties," said John C. Zaragoza, an Oxnard activist who helped circulate the petition. "I think the perception from the people is that they're being left out."
Zaragoza said the coalition that ran the petition drive will meet soon to examine ways to keep the issue alive. The group contends the commission offered a needed check on the pace of the city's development. But under election law, any new petition drive would have to begin from scratch.
Despite widespread community opposition, the City Council dismantled the Planning Commission in January, saying business leaders complained that the five-member panel created a needless, bureaucratic step for developers and slowed progress in the city. The council replaced the commission with a five-member board called the Land-Use Advisers.
The new panel was met with skepticism from Oxnard residents who view it as a pro-growth entity insulated from public opinion. Some residents are particularly upset about the panel's hearing officer, a central figure who has the power to single-handedly make many planning decisions.
The coalition of activists earlier this month submitted 6,135 signatures--17% more than the required 5,216 needed to place a measure on the November, 1996, ballot. Election officers recommend that petitioners submit at least 20% more signatures than legally required because many signatures are invalidated for a variety of reasons.
Under the California elections code, the county clerk analyzes a random sampling of 500 signatures from the petition. Among the 20.6% of signatures rejected, 11% were not registered voters, 5.2% were registered at a different address and 2.4% lived outside the city, Oxnard City Clerk Daniel Martinez said. Others were cast out for less common reasons.
Edward H. Flores, a former member of the Oxnard Planning Commission, said he was disappointed with the process used to judge petitions.
"I don't question the legality of it, but I question the fairness," he said, advocating that the county clerk examine each signature. "I gathered signatures with other persons in front of churches, in front of grocery stores. With every one, the first thing we asked was whether they were a registered voter in the city of Oxnard."
Oxnard City Councilman Andres Herrera said he was not surprised the citizen activists failed to place a measure on the ballot.
"I heard that they were just going out and getting anyone to sign without asking if they even lived in the city, let alone were registered voters," he said.
Herrera added that the City Council had tried to hold discussions with the petitioners but its offers were rejected.
"I think it's a valid issue to discuss. But it would be better served discussed in a meaningful forum," he said. "Instead, they just hang around and harass us at City Council meetings."
Oxnard City Councilman Tom Holden said he felt that a lot of erroneous information was being distributed during the petition drive and that the panel of Land-Use Advisers should be given a chance to work.
"I would get phone calls from people who said the petitioners told them the Planning Commission would save the greenbelt or halt development," he said. "The changes we made in no way inhibit public participation or scrutiny and in some cases may even enhance it."
But Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez said the public debate on the issue would be best served by placing something on the ballot.
"At least it would be an opportunity to discuss the issues," he said.