Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

The Rise of the Referendum

City councils in Azusa, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente each approved major land use projects over the past few months.  All three of these projects are now in a battle for survival as voters attempt to overturn project approvals through the referendum process.

These three incidents should serve as a cautionary tale for property owners:  You don’t just need the support of decision-makers; you need the support of more than 50 percent of the voters.  This support should be secured prior to a vote of a city council or board of supervisors because referendum signature gathering begins immediately after project approval.

As Orange County’s leading public affairs firm, we’ve helped clients defeat referendum drives. In one instance, our efforts helped give Yorba Linda its own high school, as our YLHS YES! campaign for Shapell Homes turned back opponents.

Here’s a review of the basic process under state law (municipalities may alter this process by ordinance, so be sure to check):

  • Proponents have 30 days from approval of the ordinance to circulate a petition calling for repeal.
  • There is no title and summary or publication requirement.  Proponents may commence circulating the petition as soon as the ordinance is adopted.
  • The referendum must contain the full text of the ordinance or legislative act the proponents are challenging.
  • Proponents must gather signatures from not less than 10 percent of the registered voters in the city according to the last report of registration.
  • Any voter who has signed a petition may withdraw his or her signature by filing a written request with the elections officer at least one day before the petition is filed.
  • The ordinance that is subject of a referendum is automatically suspended once the referendum petition qualifies [NOTE – this stops any activity on your property related to the approvals you just received].
  • Once the city election official certifies the referendum has the requisite number of signatures, Council must either repeal the ordinance, or place the measure on the next regular municipal election, or call a special election to consider the ordinance.
  • If a special election is called, it must be held no later than 88 days from the date the election is called.
  • The City attorney prepares an impartial summary and the proponents and opponents prepare arguments for and against the referendum (and rebuttals) for the ballot statement.

A good reference:  California elections code section 9235-9242.  If you’re facing a referendum, or feel your project may face one upon Council approval, give us a call so we can talk strategy.

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