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Group Will Try to Revive Council Districts Initiative

November 01, 1990|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The backers of a Glendale initiative that was declared dead in July will ask a Superior Court judge this week to breathe new life into their effort to force City Council members to run for office from districts instead of citywide.

The Coalition for Election Reform notified the city Friday that it will ask the court to order Glendale officials to either put the district elections initiative on the April 2 ballot or allow another 26 days to gather more signatures. The group's attorney said he will file the request Thursday with Judge John R. Zebrowski.

"We feel an obligation to the public, which has supported our districting concept," said Richard Seeley, coalition treasurer, referring to the appeal.

If the coalition's measure were to get on a ballot and win approval, it would divide the city into five districts. Voters in each would elect a single council member. Coalition leaders say this would bring political power to parts of the city they believe are now neglected.

The five council members, two of whom could be forced to give up their seats by the measure, strongly oppose the districting plan.

On July 6, Glendale officials ruled that the coalition did not gather enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. They also said the city could not legally give the group time to collect more.

But in its legal brief, the coalition claims that city officials gave out incorrect information regarding the number of signatures needed and the deadline for turning in petitions.

The brief alleges that former City Atty. Frank R. Manzano, current City Atty. Scott H. Howard and City Clerk Aileen Boyle told coalition leaders that the group needed to gather valid signatures from 10% of Glendale's registered voters. Boyle told them that their deadline was June 12, the document states.

After the petitions were filed, however, city officials said they discovered that under a little-known 1988 law the coalition actually needed signatures from 15% of Glendale's voters. The 8,446 signatures gathered by the coalition fell nearly 2,000 short of that mark.

The same obscure law would have allowed 200 days to gather signatures--26 days beyond the deadline announced by the city clerk, the legal brief states.

"It would run contrary to all notions of justice and fair play to allow the city to enforce the newly discovered 15% requirement and at the same time refuse to be bound by the equally newly discovered 200-day circulation time period," the document argues.

Seeley said coalition leaders waited until recently to seek relief in court because they were busy researching legal issues and lobbying for a law that would rescind the 15% signature requirement. The bill was killed in the California Assembly on Aug. 31.

Coalition leaders have admitted that they received flawed advice from their previous lawyers, who also were unaware of the 1988 law.

Santa Monica attorney Hermez Moreno said he took over the coalition's case at reduced fees because he believes it may lead to a suit against the state, seeking to overturn the 1988 law. He said legal disputes stemming from that law are only now beginning to surface in court.

"This is unique," Moreno said of the Glendale initiative dispute. "I have not been able to find a case involving specifically this issue. But the same principles are involved in other cases."

City Atty. Howard has asserted that he and the city clerk were not legally obligated to help the backers of a petition drive.

But Moreno contended that the coalition had a right to receive correct information on election rules from city officials.

"The minute you undertake a duty, you've got to do it in a non-negligent fashion," he said. "It seems to me the clerk and the city attorney are charged with the duty to assure business is done properly with the city. They've got a duty to dispense accurate information."

In an interview Monday, Howard denied that he personally provided incorrect information to the coalition. He said the city is prepared to defend its position in court, but he declined to provide details before a hearing.

Howard questioned the motives of the coalition leaders. "I look at part of this as being an attempt to gain publicity," he said.

The coalition is expected to seek a court decision within two weeks. If the judge grants additional time for gathering signatures, the group must turn them in by Jan. 3 to qualify for the April 2 ballot.

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