Landlord activists in Santa Monica are challenging an increase in Rent Control Board registration fees by circulating petitions seeking a voter referendum on the issue.
The landlord group ACTION (A Commitment to Insure Owners' Needs) will have no problem gathering the 3,500 signatures needed to force a referendum, said spokesman Geoffrey Strand.
By Thursday, about 950 people had signed petitions protesting the rent board's decision to raise the fee, which pays for its operating costs, from $7 per unit a month to $10, Strand said. Landlords pay the total annual fee and pass the cost on to tenants.
But Joel Martin Levy, the board's staff attorney, said the decision to increase fees is not subject to state referendum provisions because it is an administrative decision, not a legislative one.
"There is no history of there having ever been a referendum on an administrative regulation in California," Levy said.
"Even when the City Council enacts fees . . . that is even considered an administrative act and is not subject to referendum under California case law," he said.
Interpretation of Law
The public had ample opportunity to oppose the fee increase at rent board budget hearings, he added.
ACTION members, however, disagree with Levy's interpretation of the law, claiming the board is trying to "circumvent the people's power" by opposing the referendum campaign.
"What Joel Levy is saying is that the Rent Control Board is the only body in the state not subject to referendum," said Carl J. Lambert, vice president of the landlord group. "I think he's wrong."
A Santa Monica Superior Court judge is expected to decide Wednesday on the group's lawsuit that seeks to delay enactment of the fee increase until July 26, 30 days after it was approved.
ACTION contends that state law entitles it to 30 days to organize its referendum campaign and petition.
Meanwhile, Levy said bills have been sent to landlords and the fees are being collected.
He warned that the fee is still due by Aug. 1, and that landlords who do not meet the deadline will not be allowed to pass the fee on to tenants.