It used to be that there was nothing much you could do. When developers started putting up cinder block walls a few feet from your back yard or talked about packing every available street corner in town with new tanning salons and yogurt parlors, or when the City Council seemed to be draining your grocery money away with new taxes, you could write angry letters.
Maybe you could go to your polling place in the next election and vote against those city council members who seemed indifferent to all the big changes that growth was bringing to the San Gabriel Valley. Mostly you were left frustrated.
But the voters are not taking it any more. Like disgruntled citizens in many other parts of California, they've latched onto a powerful weapon to fight back--the initiative petition.
Impelled largely by heartfelt objections to a major building boom in the San Gabriel Valley, which has transformed rural communities into traffic-clogged urban outposts, dissatisfied voters are drawing up petitions and taking their clipboards to the streets.
Your local government won't put restraints on the headlong pace of growth? Want to get rid of your councilman? Then go to the initiative process and do it yourself, they say.
This is "direct democracy"--citizens drawing up legislation and voting it into law, some petition circulators claim. "It's citizens telling their elected representatives, 'Look, we voted for you to represent us, and we don't think you're doing that now, so we're going to take the ball onto the court,' " said Kit-Bacon Gressett, a leader of the Pasadena group whose ballot measure to stop renovation of the Huntington Sheraton hotel was defeated last May.
In recent years in the San Gabriel Valley, the same initiative and referendum process that brought Proposition 13 to California has kicked city councilmen out of office, put a clamp on high-density construction in some localities, erased big development plans from the drawing board and generally shaken up a lot of elected officials and city administrators.
"You get a small group of people circulating petitions, and next thing you know, there are these mini-civil wars going on all over the city," groused one city official from South Pasadena, whose fractious electorate has been called upon to decide half a dozen hot political issues in the past six years, from the location of City Hall to the height of new buildings.
Four hotly contested initiatives are now awaiting action by San Gabriel Valley voters--three citizen-initiated ballot measures on a plan to develop an Azusa golf course and one in San Gabriel calling for a one-year moratorium on all new multiunit housing projects. Citizen groups are also circulating petitions in South Pasadena in favor of the direct election of the mayor and urging stringent restrictions on new commercial strips or mini-malls.
Like it or not, the process has become part of the political furniture. This powerful tool to combat growth has even attracted the attention of developers who, frustrated at the slow pace of getting projects approved, have appealed directly to the voters, offering tax revenue and housing stock in exchange for voter-approved zone changes.
For San Gabriel Valley cities, like other general law cities, the process involves a series of steps that are strictly mandated in the state Election Code. Petitioners have to file with the city clerk, publish their petitions in local publications and submit all their signed petitions within 180 days of embarking on the process. If they garner signatures from 15% of the registered voters in town and the signatures are verified, the city must hold a special election. It takes 10% of the voters to place the measure on the ballot in the next regularly scheduled election.
Although some elected officials grouse privately about the disruptive effect of petitions, advocates of initiatives contend that they are evidence of a widespread political malaise. Why do voters appear to be taking up arms against their own elected officials? Because there is a growing perception that, under the pressure to build, all elected officials tend to lose sight of the needs of the people who elected them, the dissidents contend.
"Going to the initiative process is a last desperate measure," says Norman Getschell, a South Pasadena real estate broker who has been involved in successful petition activities in his city to restrain development.
"I think citizens feel that government is no longer responsive to them," he adds. "It's funny. People change once they get into office. Who do they meet in the city council? They meet developers, activists, people like that. Not the guy who voted for them. Their perception of what they're supposed to do is distorted by the fact that they no longer hear the community at large."