GARDENA — The City Council has voted not to place a rent control initiative before voters next spring, even though backers collected enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot.
Council members voted unanimously Tuesday night not to place the initiative on the April 8 municipal election ballot after City Atty. Michael Karger told them it was unconstitutional. The initiative seeks to establish an ordinance that would limit annual rent increases to 7% or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.
Mark Hessman, a 33-year-old free-lance writer and author of the initiative, said Wednesday that he plans to go to court to overturn the council's action.
"I am going to pursue it any way I can," Hessman said. "We're going to try to pursue it. Why give up now? We've gone a long way."
2,206 Valid Signatures
The council's vote came after City Clerk May Doi ruled that Hessman and his supporters had collected 2,206 valid signatures from registered voters in support of the measure. To qualify an initiative for the ballot under state law, 1,907 signatures were needed, representing 10%, of the city's registered voters, she said.
However, Karger, citing a court ruling stemming from a challenge to a Berkeley rent control ordinance, told council members that the initiative is flawed because it fails to set standards on how rent increases sought by landlords would be processed in a timely and efficient manner. Under the initiative, landlords would have to get approval from a five-member rent control board before they could impose any increase.
"The basic problem is that the initiative does not allow a reasonable time in which landlords can be granted a rent increase," Karger told the council.
Karger also labeled as "arbitrary" a portion of the initiative that would roll back all rents in the city to their July, 1984, level.
He said the measure might have been acceptable if it had a clause that would allow a court to cut out any unconstitutional portions of the initiative and leave the rest intact.
Council Can Refuse
Karger added that while it is the inherent right of residents to vote on initiatives if enough signatures are submitted, courts have held that a city council can refuse to submit an initiative to voters if it believes it is unconstitutional.
Karger, in a letter to council members, cited a 1953 state Court of Appeal decision to support his position.
"If the council did put it on the ballot, someone else could sue the city to get it off the ballot," Karger said, adding that the city would then be forced to defend a measure that he termed "clearly indefensible."
After the council's vote, Hessman maintained that because enough registered voters signed his petition, the city was obligated to place it on the ballot.
"The City Council picks on all these different points, but it's not up to them to decide," he said. "It just seems like they are slapping everybody in the face. The council thinks their quaint little fish bowl is all just so perfect, but it's not that way."
Hessman, who has lived in Gardena for two years, said he collected the signatures after the owners of the mobile home park where he lives informed residents that their rents would be increased from $135 to $200 by next February. In preparing his initiative, he studied rent control ordinances in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. He said he wrote the 20-page initiative without the aid of an attorney.
"I called three attorneys in the South Bay, including one in Gardena, Torrance and Redondo Beach," Hessman said. "And all of them said they would not write up a rent control ordinance. One said he didn't believe in rent control in this area."
A handful of property owners at the meeting urged the council not to place the initiative on the ballot. Hessman was the only person to speak in favor of the initiative.
Council members, saying they do not believe a rent control ordinance is needed in Gardena, expressed confidence in the city's rent mediation board to solve disputes between renters and landlords. The 10-member board, composed of renters and landlords, attempts to settle disputes through negotiation but has no legal authority.
Since the board was established four years ago, it has handled 29 disputes, 27 of which have been successfully mediated, according to city officials.
At Councilman James Cragin's suggestion, the city staff was told to study whether binding arbitration could be used to settle rent disputes.
Councilman Paul Tsukahara labeled Hessman an "awfully angry man" who is "on a crusade."
"(You're) trying to use a sledgehammer for a problem that I think can be resolved with the mechanisms we have and reasonable people," the councilman said.
Councilman Mas Fukai said that while he is concerned that tenants be treated fairly, he is not aware of any abuses by the city's landlords. "I don't want Santa Monica in this town. I don't want other cities (that have rent control ordinances) in this town," he said.