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Confusion Over Law Threatens Initiative : Referendums: Ignorance of the rules for getting a measure on the ballot in a charter city led an election reform group to underestimate the number of signatures it needed.

June 28, 1990|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Widespread ignorance of the rules covering ballot initiatives in charter cities has cast a cloud of uncertainty over a Glendale petition drive aimed at requiring the City Council to be elected by districts instead of at-large.

City officials said last week that the Coalition for Electoral Reform, which turned in 11,015 petition signatures June 11, may have miscalculated the minimum number needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot. The initiative was designed to bring greater representation on the council to areas of the city that proponents said are now being neglected.

The present five council members, three of whom live near one another in the city's affluent Chevy Chase area, say district representation is not needed in Glendale.

City officials now say the petition organizers need about 10,400 valid signatures to get their measure on the ballot. Although the drive has gathered more signatures than that, hundreds of those will probably be declared invalid, disqualifying the measure.

If that occurs, the coalition also could ask a judge for time to round up more names.

Coalition leaders admitted that they ran into trouble because their legal advisers referred them to the wrong law. The group also said it received bad advice from the Glendale City Clerk's office and the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters.

Based on this advice, the group had thought it needed to gather signatures from at least 10% of the city's registered voters. But last week city officials researched the law and discovered that the coalition actually needed signatures from at least 15% of the registered voters because Glendale is a charter city.

A charter city has its own body of law, similar to a constitution. Coalition members had followed the guidelines in a state Elections Code section covering local petition drives and were unaware that a separate state law includes different guidelines for charter cities.

"We got bad advice all the way down the line," said Richard Seeley, one of the leaders of the coalition.

Seeley declined to identify the coalition's attorneys, saying that the group had agreed to not identify its lawyers in return for a fee reduction.

"It was my understanding that it was 10% too," City Clerk Aileen B. Boyle said last week, referring to the minimum percentage of registered voters needed to place a measure on the ballot.

Glendale City Atty. Scott H. Howard said no initiative drives have been launched in Glendale during his 13 years on the city staff. He said he had no reason to consult the state law on charter city initiatives until council members asked him to look into it last week.

Ironically, until 1988, the standards for getting an amendment on the ballot in a charter city were far less demanding than in other cities. Under those rules, the Glendale council districts initiative would likely have qualified with ease.

But a bill that slipped quietly through the state Legislature two years ago dramatically increased the number of signatures needed in charter cities.

That change has compounded the questions surrounding the current Glendale initiative, and political scholars say such confusion is a statewide problem.

"The city clerk and the city attorney should be aware of changes in the law, but sometimes they're not," said Robert Stern, co-director of the California Commission on Campaign Financing, a private organization that is researching the initiative process. "This law was changed quietly."

Stern said the change in state law was sought by the League of California Cities, which lobbies for local governments.

The 1988 measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego), was approved by the Legislature without public debate. Summaries of the legislation available to the lawmakers did not indicate it would increase the number of signatures needed to place a city charter amendment on the ballot, Stern said.

"City Councils hate initiatives--all elected officials hate initiatives," he said. "I think the legislators in general would like to weaken the initiative process."

Coalition members followed the state Elections Code, which says city initiatives must obtain signatures from 10% of the city's registered voters to appear on the next municipal election ballot or 15% to qualify for a special election.

At the time the signature drive was launched, Glendale had about 69,500 registered voters. Therefore, coalition members believed they needed about 10,400 signatures to qualify for a special November ballot or about 7,000 to qualify for the April city election.

The county registrar's staff is expected to discard many of the coalition's 11,015 names because a person signed more than one time or was not registered to vote in Glendale. Nonetheless, coalition leaders expected to easily meet the 10% requirement.

City Councilman Carl Raggio last week asked the city attorney's office to research the law as it applies to Glendale and found that the rules are different for charter cities.

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