A voter referendum on whether to build a new city hall that had qualified for the November ballot was ruled illegal by an Orange County Superior Court judge on Tuesday.
The decision by Judge Robert C. Jameson negated a petition signed by more than 5,000 citizens seeking to block the City Council's plans to build an $18-million city hall. The ruling was in response to a city lawsuit against the Citizens Action Committee, which had sought to put the city hall question on the November ballot.
Responding to the petition drive, the city devised its own ballot measure on the issue and put it to the city's voters on June 2. It was soundly defeated.
"We're disappointed with the judge's decision, but we've already won a great victory," said Norman Murray, a member of a group that opposed the city hall. "We did at least gain half a loaf by getting the (city hall) question on the ballot in June."
Jameson agreed with the city's contention that financing a city hall should be an administrative, not a legislative, decision.
"We had an obligation to ask people (not) to vote on something that's illegal," Mayor Sharon Cody said. "We did believe (the petition carried) language that was confusing and possibly illegal."
But Cody agreed that the petition influenced her vote to put the city hall issue before the electorate last month.
"To me, there was a strong message in that" petition, she said. "There were so many signatures on the petition, I began to feel that residents in the city did have strong feelings" about the city hall proposal.
The council's decision to put the issue to a vote last month was supported by a poll conducted by a city-paid consultant recently. In the telephone survey, initiated by the council to find out whether citizens want to permanently halt efforts to build a city hall or favor a scaled-down project, about 90% of those questioned said voters should have final word on any civic center project.
No other poll results were released Tuesday by City Hall.
Murray said he isn't certain if the Superior Court decision will be appealed.
The council is now looking at scaling down plans and moving the project to another site. Seeking to mend fences with the Citizens Action Committee, the council appointed a city hall task force of city officials and members of the citizens group.
"I think all this has created a healthier local government because the council has awakened to the demands of its citizens," Murray said. "They've been very responsive in the last month."