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Judge Says No to Vote Initiative : Court: Coalition is rebuffed in its attempt to put a district-only council election measure on the April 2 ballot.

November 22, 1990|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has refused to revive an initiative--rejected by Glendale officials in June--that would have forced City Council members to run for office by district instead of citywide.

Judge John R. Zebrowski's ruling last Thursday appeared to end any chance for the Coalition for Election Reform to get the measure on the April 2 municipal ballot and make district-only elections an issue in the race for two Glendale City Council seats.

Coalition members said their remaining options are to appeal Zebrowski's ruling, which would be costly and possibly futile, or begin a new signature drive to qualify an initiative for a later election. After last week's court defeat, leaders of the group said they had made no immediate decision regarding which course to pursue.

Zebrowski said he could not help the coalition get its present initiative before voters without violating state election laws. The group had asked him to order the Glendale City Council to put the measure on the April 2 municipal ballot or give the coalition another 26 days to gather more signatures.

Coalition leaders claimed that they filed an insufficient number of signatures and adhered to the wrong deadline because of incorrect information provided by Glendale officials earlier this year.

In his ruling, the judge acknowledged that city staff members may have misinformed the coalition. But he said the city is not obligated to tell people the rules for conducting an initiative campaign.

"The duty of complying with the Elections Code rests with the persons attempting to comply," he said in a written decision. "No basis has been presented here for the court to order deviation from the Elections Code."

Richard Seeley, coalition treasurer, said he was disappointed that city officials were not forced to make amends for giving out incorrect information.

"They get the benefit of their own mistakes and we get nothing," he said. "That is not justice or fairness."

But City Atty. Scott Howard, who represented Glendale at the hearing, argued, "It's not the city's duty or responsibility to provide legal advice or information."

Howard said that in a previous case, a county attorney provided incorrect advice in writing regarding signature requirements, but the courts ruled it was not sufficient cause to set aside state election laws.

In the Glendale case, Zebrowski said that to grant the coalition's request, he would have had to disregard one law that sets the minimum signature requirements or another that forbids a group from turning in supplemental signatures.

If his ruling is not appealed, the small, but vocal, coalition will have to start over in its bid to change the way Glendale City Council members are elected.

In June, the group turned in almost 8,500 valid signatures on a petition aimed at forcing council members to run for office from five districts. Coalition leaders said this system would bring political power to neighborhoods they believe are now being neglected.

After the petitions were filed, city officials said they discovered that the measure would change Glendale's city charter and, as a result, it required more signatures. Also, City Clerk Aileen Boyle said the group would have had more time to gather signatures under rules for city charter amendments.

Glendale officials rejected the petitions after determining that they fell about 2,000 signatures short of the minimum needed to get on the ballot and the city refused to grant the additional time. Claiming city officials had acted unfairly, coalition members this month asked Zebrowski to grant them the additional time.

The judge reviewed legal briefs from the coalition and the city before handing down his tentative ruling last Thursday. Then, Hermez Moreno, the coalition's attorney, tried unsuccessfully to change Zebrowski's mind during oral arguments.

Moreno said his clients could have gathered signatures for another 26 days "except for the incorrect application of the law by the city."

"You're saying they gave you bad information," the judge said. "I'm willing to assume this did occur. But I don't believe the law allows deviation from the Elections Code as a result."

Zebrowski said: "The city has no obligation to give out information. Their only duty is to carry out the election. They have no duty to advise people who want to put a matter on the ballot."

The judge said the coalition should have determined the proper rules for initiatives before handing in the petitions. Members of the group have also said they received flawed legal advice from a previous attorney.

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