Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Referendum’

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.

Voters Send Mixed Messages on Ballot-Box Planning

Did you follow Measure N on the June 8 primary ballot up in Sutter Creek? No? Well we did track it, because it was one of the only referenda in the primary challenging the approval of a housing project. At the polls, 586 residents of the Amador County town voted “yes,” and 594 voted “no,” meaning the City Council’s earlier approval of the proposed Gold Rush Ranch and Golf Resort has been overturned – by eight votes.

[Update: Absentee ballots turned the election around, swinging the results to a 12-vote victory for Gold Rush Ranch's advocates.]

Closer to our home in Orange County – and closer to our client list – was Mission Viejo’s Measure D. The ballot-box planning initiative grew out of public opposition to an assisted-living facility project we worked on – a project that died in the economic downturn long before Measure D was placed on the ballot. After a spirited campaign, 62.4 percent of Mission Viejo voters emphatically said “no” to ballot-box planning.

In other conflicting election results:

  • Voters in the City of Brentwood denied an initiative making it possible to develop about 750 acres, but…
  • Voters in Santa Clara paved the way for a new San Francisco 49ers stadium.

So what can the builder/developer community take away from these results?

On the surface, not much. Very different towns voted very differently on very different ballot measures. But the fact they were even on the ballot is a great example of the public’s current low regard for both government and private companies – and their growing desire to have more say in the development process.

Need more proof? Just look at PG&E’s Proposition 16. PG&E spent nearly $25 for each of the votes it got in favor of the company’s self-serving proposition. Opponents spent less than a nickel for each of the votes they gathered, successfully playing David to PG&E’s Goliath. Mercury Insurance suffered a similar, less costly, defeat on its corporate venture into propositions.

Neither proposition was particularly reprehensible, so the vote shows that Californians don’t like it when corporations try to make laws. The folks with Gold Rush Ranch may have suffered from a similar dislike and distrust of corporations.

Lack of Public Trust May Lead to More Referenda

So, if you’re a big corporation and there are laws you’d like passed, go through the legislature – voters can be too unpredictable.

And if you must launch or fight a referendum, know that it’s definitely winnable, but prepare for a tough slog because voters up and down the state have little trust in either government or big business, and are clamoring for more input in anything affecting their quality of life. Our approach has always been to get more than 50 percent of the community behind a project as we go through the city or county approval process, so our client is well prepared, should a referendum be in the cards. In today’s environment, planning for a referendum from the beginning will make it much easier to accomplish your goals in the end.