The Santa Monica city attorney has ruled that petitions for a slow-growth initiative are illegal, but backers are fighting the decision in court in a last-chance attempt to salvage the ballot measure.
The group, Santa Monica Tomorrow, is scheduled to appear in court today to ask a judge to order the city of Santa Monica to accept petitions containing about 7,000 signatures--1,500 more than needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
City Atty. Robert M. Myers on Monday ruled the petitions invalid because they do not include a "notice of intent to circulate" nor the names of the proponents of the measure. State law requires the notice to appear on initiative petitions, Myers said.
It was the second time in less than two weeks that an initiative drive in Santa Monica has been dealt such a blow.
On June 2, Myers ruled that petitions for an initiative that would toughen rent control laws also violated state Election Code, a decision that killed that campaign.
But the slow-growth group said it would fight back.
Spokeswoman Sharon Gilpin said the group's lawyers will argue that Myers' ruling attacks a technicality that has nothing to do with the substance of the measure.
"Santa Monica Tomorrow has substantially complied with the election code rules," she said in a prepared statement.
"The city attorney has picked on a technical interpretation of the statute, and if the city attorney is right, then the rules are ambiguous to the average citizen who circulates petitions. And that defeats the purpose of the initiative process."
Gilpin said lawyers would seek a court order forcing the city to accept the petitions. Time is crucial because the deadline for submitting petitions passed last Friday.
Myers, who based his decision on a 1987 Court of Appeal case out of San Francisco, said Tuesday he was confident his opinion would prevail.
The measure the group is promoting would substantially curtail new construction in the city.
Sponsors say commercial development has gotten out of hand, threatening what they call Santa Monica's special residential charm and character. They say city officials too often give in to developers, allowing out-of-scale projects that strain already-burdened sewers and streets.
In one of its more controversial elements, the measure links permission to build to the capacity of streets and sewers.
It also establishes height and density limits in most areas of the city.
Critics of the measure have said its restrictions on growth are too drastic and will scare away business and erode the city's tax base.
Slow-growth proponents worked for about nine months to forge their initiative, splitting at the last minute over whether to include the sewerage controls and other details.
After Santa Monica Tomorrow filed its initiative papers April 15, a splinter group, Let's Slow Growth, filed papers for a similar measure. But subsequent revisions delayed progress on the second initiative, and petitions for that version were never circulated.
Members of Let's Slow Growth then lashed out at members of Santa Monica Tomorrow, saying the latter group's initiative was legally vulnerable.
Though rife with such divisions, the slow-growth movement--regardless of what happens in court this week--is by no means dead.
The City Council has already taken steps to cut future building in Santa Monica by up to 50% in some areas, and one councilman, Dennis Zane, is promoting a measure that would put a yearly cap on new square footage.
Let's Slow Growth members, who opposed the Santa Monica Tomorrow initiative, now say they may try to force a special election next year with a reworked ballot measure.
"Overall, it (rejection of the initiative petitions) is probably better for the slow-growth movement," said Ken Genser, who worked on the Let's Slow Growth version of an initiative. "Now this gives us time to get broad-based support and put together an enforceable measure."
Gilpin, meanwhile, reflecting a frustration shared by many of her colleagues, blamed changes in the election code for confusing the rules on initiatives.
"The rules aren't clear," she said. "I'm an intelligent woman; the people I worked with are intelligent. The rules are supposed to be so that citizens can exercise their right to petition. The rules are ambiguous . . . and that defeats the purpose."