Democracy Inc.

Joe Mathews, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Times staff writer, will moderate a panel on business and the local ballot process on May 27 at the Autry National Center.

In Thousand Oaks, the owner of a local chain of home improvement stores called Do It Centers is locked in fierce, expensive competition with Home Depot. But the contest has nothing to do with which can offer the lowest prices and the friendliest service, or which will sell you the better chain saw.

No, even though this war is all about business, it's being fought on a political battlefield, and will come to a head on June 3, when the residents of Thousand Oaks vote on a municipal ballot initiative known as Measure B.

Measure B represents a small but growing species of ballot measure, used by businesses to impede their competitors at the polls rather than the checkout counter. As such, the measure is being watched far beyond the city of 127,000 people, with California's planners, developers and full-time initiative industry showing the most interest.

In Thousand Oaks, the true nature of the contest has been partly obscured by the "yes" and "no" campaigns, each of which strain to argue that Measure B has something to do with broader public policy issues.

Supporters portray Measure B as an anti-traffic initiative that would give voters the power to approve or deny future large development proposals to ward off massive traffic jams. Opponents all but claim that Measure B would create a one-city Great Depression in Thousand Oaks by forcing big companies to locate elsewhere, preventing the development of a recreation center and starving Thousand Oaks of the funds it needs for schools and cops.

Two of the state's top political consultants have gotten involved. Most of the town has chosen sides (even the Little Leagues issued endorsements), and business groups and elected officials are divided. Personal insults are being exchanged.

But the claims of each side are so numerous and -- let's be kind -- exaggerated that it might be a good idea for everyone to take a deep breath and examine the most recent campaign-finance filings. These reports, detailing contributions and expenditures in 2007 and in the first 2 1/2 months of 2008, offer a far clearer picture of what's at stake, and for whom.

The "yes" campaign, euphemistically called the Committee to Keep Thousand Oaks Traffic Moving, had received more than $329,000 -- all of it, save a single $150 check, from Do It Center.

The "no" campaign, with the equally meaningless name Citizens for a Strong & Healthy Thousand Oaks, had received more than $400,000 -- every single penny of which comes from Home Depot, a corporate citizen of Atlanta.

If you were to take the campaigns at face value, you would no doubt conclude that it is mighty nice of these companies to spend such large amounts for the causes of good traffic and strong economic health in Thousand Oaks. But skeptics might point out that these firms are a wee bit self-interested.

Take the language of Measure B. The initiative, if approved, would require a vote of the people if a commercial development is more than 75,000 square feet and causes a certain level of traffic congestion. It just so happens that Home Depots are bigger than 75,000 square feet, and so Measure B might slow down or even block Home Depot's proposed new store on the site of a former Kmart not far from the Do It Center on Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

On the flip side, it makes perfect sense that Home Depot, for all its supposed concern about Thousand Oaks, actually opposes Measure B's plan to put development questions in the hands of voters because it prefers to make its deals directly with city councils, which usually can't resist the lure of Home Depot jobs, sales tax revenue and campaign contributions.

Rhetoric aside, voters in Thousand Oaks are being asked a deceptively simple question: In which store would you prefer to shop for hardware? The question may be life and death for a certain tool-belt-wearing demographic. But overall, the answer is far more important to the competing businesses than it is to the future of Thousand Oaks.

Don't feel too bad, Thousand Oaks residents. You're hardly the first city whose ballot has been used as a stage for business-on-business warfare. In the last six years, similar local ballot measure fights have broken out in El Segundo (developer versus developer), Glendale (a mall versus retail developer) and Beverly Hills (hotel versus hotel). In Anaheim last year, a tussle between the Walt Disney Co. and SunCal Cos., a major developer based in Irvine, over the rezoning of a property in the city's resort district triggered two local ballot measures. (After several months of campaigning, SunCal decided not to fund its side of the campaign, and the measures backed by Disney were enacted by the City Council directly and pulled from the ballot.)

Direct democracy in California has its roots in the early 20th century fight between business interests (the initiative process was backed by agricultural and oil interests angry at the shipping rates the railroad was charging). And "ballot box planning," the term for letting voters rather than elected officials and city planners decide land-use questions, is not new either. Since a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared land-use referendums constitutional, such measures have become a national staple.

From 2000 to 2006, according to a new report from the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC and the USC-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics, 67 land-use measures involving large-scale development appeared on ballots in communities in 18 states. California, showing its usual leadership, was tops with 22 such measures.

What's changing now, say those who make their living working on these campaigns, is the identity of those sponsoring the land-use measures. For decades, environmentalists and NIMBY types used municipal initiatives and referendums to slow down big-business development projects. Now, after being battered with such measures for so long, businesses are learning to use their tormentors' tactics against competitors.

Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles lobbyist and consultant who is working on behalf of Do It Center in Thousand Oaks, argues that initiatives such as Measure B give local communities more leverage over powerful corporations, with the threat of voters allowing cities to negotiate for better terms on developments. Further, he says, local ballot measures allow companies to protect themselves from unscrupulous competitors that can afford to buy off city councils or planning commissions.

To critics, however, this sounds like a bad update of Clausewitz's maxim on war and politics. Must local ballot measures really be used to conduct business by other means?

Jesse Ruf, the owner of the Do It Center in Thousand Oaks and in eight other locations in California, has been as successful as anyone in navigating the local ballot-measure world. He has fought off competitors twice before in local ballot fights, including an Agoura Hills initiative similar to Measure B that stopped a proposed Home Depot in 2002.

It's hard to look at a California landscape dominated by big-box stores and not feel some sympathy for Ruf's strategy. City governments are eager for the new sales tax revenue that big retail development promises, sometimes at the expense of established businesses like his. Municipal unions often push for new development so city coffers are full at contract time. In many small municipalities, well-connected consultants can so dominate politics that any company that hires them can get its development approved.

But the ballot-measure cure may be worse than the disease. Elections are not cheap, either for taxpayers or for the corporations for which ballot measures have become part of the cost of doing business. Already, Thousand Oaks reports having spent $79,475.57 for economic assessments, traffic analysis and legal fees related to Measure B. (The tally does not include staff costs.) The June 3 municipal special election is expected to cost an additional $50,000.

Although such claims can be overblown, there is a danger that these ballot measures can affect more than the two competing businesses. In Thousand Oaks, the president of Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center has insisted publicly that a section of Measure B that regulates large-scale, noncommercial development could threaten new hospital construction mandated under seismic safety laws.

Can anything be done to reduce the number of such measures?

Utah, in response to a surge of land-use measures in that state, recently passed a law prohibiting voters from pursuing initiatives and referendums on the land-use actions of local governments. But such legislation would stand little chance in initiative-crazy California.

And yes, it would be best if experienced planners and honest city officials, meeting in city halls full of engaged citizens, would decide land-use questions. And it'd be nice if businesses would focus their competitive fire on customers, not voters.

Don't hold your breath.

So here's a more modest request. This is a litigious state in a litigious country. And the California Environmental Quality Act has long provided a way for corporations to frustrate the plans of their competitors. Would it be too much to ask companies to steer clear of municipal ballots and confine their business to the courts?

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