Prop. 51 Author Resigns Position

Times Staff Writer

The author of Proposition 51, the traffic congestion measure defeated by voters Tuesday, has resigned as executive director of the Planning and Conservation League.

Jerry Meral said his departure has nothing to do with heavy criticism of Proposition 51 as a “pay for play” initiative tailored to benefit developers and Indian tribes.

Meral announced his resignation last Thursday, he said, because his schoolteacher wife is retiring and they plan to move to the Northern California coast. He said he will work part time raising money for an endowment for the Planning and Conservation League Foundation.

Proposition 51 was one of only two initiatives on Tuesday’s ballot to lose. It was trailing Wednesday 59% to 41%, with all but absentee ballots counted. Meral blamed newspaper coverage and legislative hearings for swaying voters.


“The press about where the contributions came from and the opposition of some of the politicians must have made the difference,” he said.

A former high-ranking water official for Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, Meral has made the league one of California’s most prolific initiative writers in his two decades as executive director. The Sacramento environmental group has backed nine measures since 1972, and five of them passed.

Meral denied that he was pressured into stepping down, despite a sharply worded letter written to the league’s board of directors in September by state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco). Burton called the group’s approach to Proposition 51 “shortsighted, simplistic and heartless,” and accused the group of “becoming a whore for the self-aggrandizement of Jerry Meral instead of being an organization committed to saving the environment.”

Proposition 51 would have shifted away from the general fund one-third of vehicle sales tax revenue, amounting to roughly $1 billion next year. The money instead would have been used to fund more than 40 detailed projects.

Though the league called the initiative a “traffic congestion relief and safe school bus act,” the projects ranged from construction of a railroad museum in Sacramento to bus parking at the Music Concourse in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Several of the projects attracted large donors to the Yes on 51 campaign. Pardee Construction and Pardee Homes, for example, gave $700,000. The home builder would have benefited from a connector linking Interstate 5 and California 56 in San Diego County, for which Proposition 51 would have earmarked $137 million.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians donated $750,000. The initiative included $120 million for a rail line to Indio passing near the tribe’s Palm Springs resort and casino.

Meral conceded that crafting the measure to attract donors was distasteful, but he said it was necessary in a state where it takes about $1 million to gather the signatures to qualify a measure for the ballot.


“There were no interest groups we could identify who would give money simply out of the goodness of their hearts,” he said.

League board member Tony Rossman, a San Francisco attorney, agreed. He said the board supported the initiative in spite of Burton’s letter and other criticism because the Legislature and transportation agencies have failed to fix California’s traffic congestion problem.

“Jerry was trying to find a new way to solve the problem, and we were solidly behind him on that,” Rossman said.

He said there was no sense among board members that Meral had to leave for the 37-year-old nonprofit to remain effective. But, he said, “certainly one implication of the Proposition 51 loss is that we’re going to see the initiative process more judiciously used in the future.”