Deception alleged in petition bid

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Council members, fresh from a campaign in which they were accused of dirty tricks and now fighting off a hotel-backed initiative to overturn an extension of the city's "living wage" law, accused petition circulators Friday of trying to deceive voters into overturning it.

Later, the head of that effort acknowledged that two signature gatherers were indeed found to have been misrepresenting the city law and said both had been fired.

"We can't mislead and manipulate," Councilman Bill Rosendahl said during a morning news conference to complain about the petition group. "That's what's happening here."

He cited an experience he had as an example. He said he was leaving the Whole Foods store in Mar Vista recently when a petition circulator approached him and called out, "Are you for the 'living wage'?" When he said he was, the circulator responded: "Then sign this."

Since the initiative for which circulators are collecting signatures would overturn the council's decision to force hotels in the Century Boulevard corridor near LAX to pay that generally higher wage, the approach was, at best, misleading, Rosendahl noted.

To bolster their case, the council members produced other examples of people given false or misleading pitches to sign the petitions, including one involving a West Los Angeles pastor. The Rev. Howard Dotson gave an account of his encounter and then stepped back to let council members spin their case before a bank of news cameras.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has played a leading role in attempting to win raises for the hotel workers, denounced what she called "deceitful actions by the signature gatherers" and urged anyone who had signed the petition by mistake to contact city elections officials. She said her office had received reports of misleading tactics at supermarkets and retail outlets.

The council's aggressive reply to the petition effort reflects the tense debate over whether the government has the right to dictate how much the hotels near Los Angeles International Airport should be required to pay workers.

Union leaders are mounting an organizing campaign at the 13 hotels, and the city government has weighed in heavily on their behalf, arguing that because the hotels receive the benefit of a city-owned facility -- namely, LAX -- they come under the reach of the city's "living wage" law, which requires large companies that receive city business to pay certain salaries.

That argument strikes the hotels and their representatives as badly strained: The hotels are not city vendors in the conventional sense, because they do not have contracts or leases with the city. They are responding with the effort to have voters consider the matter in a spring election.

The hotel operators have won the support of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which is backing the petition drive. Harvey Englander, a longtime political consultant, is overseeing the effort for a group called Save LA Jobs.

Friday, Englander said there had been reports of misrepresentation by two signature gatherers. He added that both were fired immediately and that the signatures they solicited have been segregated and will be discarded. Photographs of the culprits will be submitted to the district attorney for possible prosecution, he said.

Despite that, Englander minimized the implications of those actions. He estimated that the two had collected only a few hundred signatures at most. He predicted that organizers would submit 100,000 signatures by Christmas; only 49,300 are needed to qualify the matter for the ballot.

"There are bad eggs in any group," he said. But "we're collecting signatures so well that we don't need to misrepresent."

The council's insistence on clean campaigning comes at a curious moment for its members, who have themselves been accused of slippery electioneering in recent months.

Ads for a proposal to relax the city's term limits were criticized as distorting the essence of that measure. And the council's decision to couple the term limits proposal with a package of self-described ethics reforms was questioned by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and other council critics, who complained that it was trickery intended to sweeten the political package for voters.

The measure passed, but its legality is still being challenged, and many opponents remain furious over what they saw as a disingenuous campaign.

In his remarks Friday, council President Eric Garcetti tried to strike a temperate tone, noting that honest people could disagree over the "living wage." But he sharply criticized what he characterized as widespread distortion in the campaign against the council's ordinance.

One of his staff members, he said, was asked at a local Target to sign the petition, which was described to her as a "petition for the 'living wage.' "

Garcetti's advice to those asked to sign: "Read the fine print."

Although the council members said they hoped the challenge to their ordinance would not reach the ballot -- a special election on the issue, Rosendahl said, would cost taxpayers millions -- they expressed confidence that they would prevail if the matter was forced to a vote.

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