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ANALYSIS : Santa Monica Council May Pay the Price on Petition : Panel members could call for a costly special election on get-tough proposals on the homeless. A refusal to place measure on the ballot may spark a political backlash.

August 07, 1994|JOHN BUZBEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Santa Monica City Council majority backed by the renters' rights group that dominates local politics faces a big political gamble Tuesday when it considers a 12,000-signature petition demanding a vote on proposed get-tough homeless policies.

Petition organizers, who are longtime opponents of Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, want to put the law-and-order proposals on the November ballot. To do that they need the verified signatures of 10% of Santa Monica voters, or about 5,400 signatures.

The proposals would cap or reduce spending on homeless services, close city parks at night and restrict panhandling in some places, including within 50 feet of automated teller machines. The City Council has already approved many of the measures, including the park closure and panhandling restrictions, but petition organizers still hope to force a ballot measure. Approval by referendum would mean the seven-member council would need a 6-1 vote to reverse the laws, rather than a simple majority.

Petition organizers missed an early July deadline for turning in the signatures in time to get the measure on the November ballot. City Clerk Clarice Dykhouse says she doubts there's enough time to verify all the signatures before Tuesday's council meeting, the last chance the board will have to consider the issue.

That leaves the council majority with a few alternatives.

Option one: Council members could assume that the petition has enough valid signatures and put it on the ballot, saving the city the expense of a special election. The political downside? The petition would give opponents of the renters' group a campaign issue and a tool to get out the vote.

Three council seats are up in the November election. Incumbents Tony Vazquez and Kelly Olsen are allied with Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, while Robert Holbrook is backed by the petition organizers.

"They're more concerned about having a platform to ride on," Olsen said. "It's a political movement for political candidates."

Option two: The council could ignore the petitions and let the deadline pass. The downside? The piles of signatures, an indicator of public sentiment, won't go away.

Another possibility would be a special election, but that would require the signatures of 15% of voters, or about 8,100 signatures. Organizers say they turned in 12,108, but often many signatures are disqualified because they're illegible, the signer is not a Santa Monica voter or other irregularities.

If enough signatures did qualify, however, the council could be forced to spend about $120,000 for a special election and wrestle with a divisive referendum a month or two after the November election.

Councilman Ken Genser is inclined to take that chance.

"It would be a very dangerous precedent to say, 'We're turning (a petition) in right before the election, but we don't have time to verify it, but put it on the ballot anyway,' " he said.

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