GARDENA — A free-lance writer who last year collected enough petition signatures to put a rent control ordinance on the ballot is circulating petitions to limit City Council terms and campaign contributions and to make the city attorney an elective post.
The City Council, however, never placed Mark Hessman's rent-control measure on the ballot because of questions about its legality, and the new petition drive faces a similar roadblock.
Meanwhile, another community activist is circulating a new rent-control petition.
City Atty. Michael Karger, who recommended that Hessman's rent control initiative not be placed on last April's ballot, said it would take an act of the Legislature for Gardena to have an elected city attorney. As a general law city, Gardena is governed by the state government code rather than a city charter, and the code only allows for the election of a mayor and council members, city clerk and treasurer.
(Charter cities--such as Torrance and Redondo Beach in the South Bay--can amend their governing charters to allow for an elected or an appointed city attorney. Redondo Beach has opted for an elected attorney.)
Karger said he also questions whether council terms can be limited by an initiative. He said the government code is silent on the number of terms elected officials can hold, which could mean that imposing limits would also require an amendment by the Legislature.
"I think the petition has got some problems," Karger said.
Henry Ullerich, a state deputy attorney general in Los Angeles, agreed that the Legislature would have to change the code before a general law city could elect its city attorney or limit council terms. He said his comments did not constitute an official opinion, however.
Hessman said he still intends to circulate his petition. If he gets enough signatures, he will then wait for an official ruling on its legality.
Hessman, who said he is only beginning to collect names and has about 40 signatures, has until May to gather the signatures of 1,900 registered voters, 10% of the city's total when he filed his petition notice with the city.
He said he is seeking the changes because the City Council's refusal to place his rent control initiative on last year's city ballot shows that it is unresponsive to residents. He said he also was disturbed by "gross" campaign contributions in that election.
The proposed ordinance, which he calls the Political Reform Ballot Initiative, would limit council members to two consecutive terms and no more than five terms in any city office.
The proposal would make the city attorney an elected office with a four-year term and limit campaign contributions to $100 from any person or entity. The city currently has a $500 limit on campaign contributions.
A review of campaign contributions statements filed with the city clerk indicates few $500 contributions were made to any candidate last year. Most contributions were collected at dinners for the candidates, usually at $50 a plate.
Council members reelected last year and an unsuccessful challenger in that race said the proposed changes are Hessman's way of getting back at the council for not putting his rent-control measure on the ballot and are not really an attempt at political reform.
"I view it as a grudge against the city for its handling of his petition," said Terry Kennedy, who finished third among five candidates for two council seats.
Councilman Mas Fukai, in his fifth term, said limiting terms would be an insult to voters. "The choice should be left to the people," he said. "If the voters feel someone has been in office too long, they'll vote him out."
Fukai also said limiting campaign contributions would hurt challengers more than incumbents because they need more money to become known to the voters.
Mayor Don Dear, who ran for reelection unopposed last year, said there is no need for any of the proposed changes.
Hessman is "just angry," Dear said. "He's just trying to spite us."
The District Attorney's Office is concluding its investigation into Hessman's charges that the City Council's refusal to place his rent initiative on the ballot was unlawful. Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert N. Jorgensen said he expects to decide in about a month.
Meanwhile, Kennedy, the unsuccessful council candidate, is circulating his new rent-control petition. It would limit annual increases to 7% or two-thirds of the increase in the consumer price index, whichever is less.
The proposed ordinance also allows for automatic increases and bans evictions without cause. Kennedy has until March to collect about 1,800 signatures. He needs 100 fewer names than Hessman because the city had fewer registered voters when he filed his petition notice.
He would not say how many he has collected.
City Atty. Karger said his preliminary review of Kennedy's petition indicates that it meets legal requirements.