For the fifth time in four weeks a Superior Court judge has been asked to resolve a dispute over the Tenant Incentive Program, a June ballot measure that would permit Santa Monica landlords to raise rents on vacant apartments.
Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, in a lawsuit filed in Santa Monica Superior Court this week, charged that the ballot argument in support of the Tenant Incentive Program contains "false and misleading statements."
The suit challenges claims that the measure would provide cash payments to tenants, and that it was "approved" by two courts. It also takes issue with the statement that the plan would do nothing to diminish local rent controls.
Judge David M. Rothman will hear the case on Monday, just two days before the deadline for filing election materials. The tenants' group will ask him to strike some portions of the ballot argument and amend other sections.
"I have no objection to people puffing and editorializing in their ballot arguments," said Rent Control Board member David Finkel, who filed the suit. "But election materials cannot contain false and misleading statements."
'Act of Desperation'
A spokesman for the landlord organization called ACTION (A Commitment to Insure Owners' Needs), which wrote the ballot argument for the Tenant Incentive Program, called the latest lawsuit "an act of desperation."
Geoffrey S. Strand said those opposed to the controversial measure are trying to bankrupt its backers before the election. He said his organization, which Friday will ask a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to change City Atty. Robert M. Myers' "impartial analysis" of the measure on grounds that it is prejudicial, will spend at least $20,000 on court fees before the vote.
"Our opponents are trying to create an artificial cloud of controversy," Strand said. "It is unprecedented to have this much legal wrangling before the public even has an opportunity to vote on something."
People familiar with Santa Monica agree that the Tenant Incentive Program has sparked more court activity than any ballot measure in recent memory.
The 1979 initiative that created the city's rugged rent control law went unchallenged in the courts before its passage. By comparison, lawyers have challenged nearly every facet of the Tenant Incentive Program, which would amend the portion of the law that prohibits a landlord from raising rents.
Finkel said the ballot measure has been scrutinized so heavily because it was poorly prepared by the people who support it. "It is difficult to get a handle on it," Finkel said. "Maybe that's what set off this spark. It would be kind of nice if we could step back and start over again."
"The initiative is technically deficient," said Councilman David G. Epstein. "They certainly could have written it in a clear manner."
But backers contend that the measure is sound. "This is not so much a legal challenge as it is a political challenge," said James W. Baker, an apartment owner and outspoken rent control opponent. "The political struggle that would normally take place during the campaign is being waged in court."
The dispute over the meaning of the Tenant Incentive Program started in February, when Myers lambasted the plan in a legal opinion delivered to the City Council. Myers said the measure, which is supposed to guarantee cash payments to tenants each time the rent is raised because of a vacancy in their building, actually offers nothing because of a major drafting error. Myers also charged that the plan is fraught with implementation problems.
Acting on Myers' findings, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, the city's major tenant organization, sued on March 18 to have the Tenant Incentive Program taken off the ballot. Judge Rothman denied the request, but conceded that the ballot measure had many "flaws, uncertainties and failures."
New Wording Sought
Later, backers of the Tenant Incentive Program asked Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren Deering to rewrite the council's ballot description of the initiative, claiming that the city had unfairly used the words decontrol and recontrol when explaining how rents would be affected by the plan.
Deering ordered the city to change certain language. But he refused, in a subsequent hearing requested by backers last week, to order the council to acknowledge that the plan provided cash payments to tenants.
When he learned of Deering's decision last Thursday, Strand announced that his group was filing another suit. This time it was challenging Myers' "impartial analysis" of the measure, which appears on voting pamphlets. Strand said Myers had "violently" attacked the plan.
Backers of the Tenant Incentive Program will seek changes in Myers' wording when they appear before Judge Jack M. Newman Friday. Strand said the City Council, which unanimously opposes the measure on grounds that it would weaken rent control, has allowed politics to interfere with its official duties.
"They have tried to twist our words to confuse the voters," Strand said. "They knew we would have to file suit to clean this thing up."
The city will maintain that Myers' analysis should stand. Myers said any order to change the analysis would amount to censorship.
On Monday, meanwhile, tenant activists will seek a ruling on their case against the ballot argument written by backers of the Tenant Incentive Program. Barring any appeals, the involved parties say they expect the pre-election litigation to end there. But Marcia Ventura of the county registrar-recorder's office said the courts could easily order an extension of Wednesday's deadline for filing election materials if another case arises.