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Voters Give Unpolluted Message on Cities, Water

November 23, 1986|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau.

California voters have sent a straightforward message to policy-makers in Sacramento and city halls around the state: They're worried about the water they drink, the growing clutter and congestion of their cities and whether their elected officials are responding to these fears.

Californians by a large margin on Nov. 4 approved Proposition 65, designed to protect drinking water from chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and sterility.

In Los Angeles, the city that has defined fast growth for the rest of the country, voters supported a measure to limit urban growth; San Franciscans did the same. And, to further emphasize concern for the environment of coastal California, residents of San Diego, San Francisco, Morro Bay, Oceanside and Sonoma and the counties of San Luis Obispo and San Mateo approved measures that will hinder construction of facilities needed for offshore oil drilling.

These issue-oriented votes were noteworthy in an election year dismissed by cynics as being devoid of substance and dominated by character-assassinating TV commercials. There were no hot national issues, despite President Reagan's last-minute attempt to elevate his Strategic Defense Initiative to that status. Instead, many 1986 contests were dominated by local issues, as is often the case in off-year elections; California was an excellent example.

The dominant California issues have been growing in public concern over the past decade, particularly along the more environment-conscious coastline. The foundation for Proposition 65's overwhelming victory was laid several years ago when tools were developed for precise analysis of how industrial chemicals have contaminated the water supply. Toxic dumps, many of them graphic examples of industrial pollution, drew first attention. But most of it was local furor--if you weren't near a toxic dump, the worry factor was low. At the same time, however, federal and state scientists began examining the drinking water supply, and what they found was bad news for a great many Californians.

With growing frequency, newspaper, radio and TV stories disclosed findings of toxic chemical infiltration into drinking water, which had always been considered safe in a state with Far Western memories of clean rivers and sparkling mountain streams. At the same time, Californians watched the failure of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and the Democratic Legislature to act on the problem.

A Los Angeles Times Poll in September measured the depths of the public's fear. Nearly four out of 10 residents of the state used bottled water or water filtered by home devices as their main source of drinking water--a substantial number of them for health concerns.

Los Angeles' slow-growth measure, Proposition U, which won overwhelming approval, had its genesis in similar measures passed by voters in suburban communities over the past decade. Many of these suburbanites moved away from cities to avoid congestion, traffic, urban tension and the poor--and some, to avoid growing numbers of Latinos and blacks. Because they tended to be white and middle- and upper-class, these suburban slow-growth advocates, and the movements they spawned, were easily targeted by foes as selfish elitists. But they were more than that. As they fought their campaigns around the state, their leaders became familiar with zoning, traffic, architecture, engineering, density, hillside stability and all the other technical facets of city planning. A movement developed, led by gifted amateurs.

Los Angeles homeowners have always lacked the fire of their counterparts in small suburban cities. Here, where City Hall is distant and hard to fight, residents fought development sporadically, responding only when there was an immediate threat to their neighborhood and quickly forgetting the issue after the battle was won or lost. But as development exploded in the affluent Westside and parts of the San Fernando Valley, a movement also led by homeowners who had learned about city planning and political tactics developed in Los Angeles. It took off when two City Council members, Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky, embraced it. The two council veterans had access to the large amounts of money needed for waging a citywide campaign, and their influence led to Proposition U's big victory.

Both that measure and Proposition 65, the state toxic chemical control initiative, were attacked during the election campaign for weakness in their language and for being mere political devices to promote the careers of backers. But if the election results mean anything, voters rejected those criticisms. Impatient with arguments over language and motives, they were apparently more interested in sending a clear, cleanup message to elected officials.

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