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Orange County

Court Sends Park Initiative to O.C. Voters

El Toro: The anti-airport measure will be on the March ballot as an appeals panel throws out a ruling that the petition language was misleading.

November 22, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO and DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County voters can decide in March whether to replace a planned airport at the closed El Toro Marine base with a large urban park, a state appeals panel in San Diego ruled Wednesday.

The ruling, which came as no surprise to either side of the El Toro debate, overturned a lower-court ruling that invalidated voter-signature petitions used to qualify the measure for the ballot. Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray ruled in July that the title and summary on the petitions misled those who signed it into believing that it authorized only open space and no development.

The court said Wednesday that the challenge was improper from the outset because it came from an opponent of the park initiative, airport backer Bruce Nestande. The justices unanimously ruled that state law gives only proponents the ability to challenge the title and summary.

In years past, the title and summary were written by proponents. But changes in state law gave the duty of drafting the language to the independent county counsel's office. Proponents are allowed to challenge it before a judge.

If the Legislature wanted anyone to be able to challenge the language at the petition stage, "it was capable of expressing that intent," the justices wrote in a published decision.

Furthermore, initiative opponents can sue over the adequacy of ballot materials before the public votes, the court said.

Nestande said he was disappointed that the justices issued their ruling on procedural grounds. He said airport supporters will decide by Monday whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"It's difficult to comprehend that the Legislature would not have allowed a lawsuit by an opponent if they felt it was improperly drafted," said Nestande, a former county supervisor and state Assembly member. "I find it hard to believe there's no standing for anyone else."

The Central Park and Nature Preserve Initiative appeared headed for the ballot after justices froze Gray's order in August and allowed the county elections process to proceed. At a hearing last week, the jurists were clearly critical of arguments in favor of reinstating Gray's ruling.

The measure was certified for the March 5 ballot this month by Registrar of Voters Rosalyn Lever. The Board of Supervisors will take a strictly procedural vote Dec. 4 to place it there officially; by law, supervisors cannot vote "no" or abstain. Board members also will receive a financial analysis of the impact of the park on the county treasury.

"I'm happy to know that a decision has been made regarding the legality, and that will certainly facilitate getting it on the ballot," board Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad said after the ruling was announced.

The initiative may go by the name Measure W. An initiative to create a county charter will appear as Measure V, County Counsel Benjamin de Mayo said. The board has no discretion whether to place the measure on the ballot but can choose the letter, he said.

Word of the appellate court's decision brought relief to organizers of South County's anti-airport campaign. For months, they collected signatures--175,000 in all, they said--to qualify the initiative for the ballot. Then they had to defend the measure in court--though the justices ruled Wednesday that the county must cover their legal costs.

"It's great news," said L. Allan Songstad Jr., a Laguna Hills City Council member and chairman of a South County coalition of anti-airport cities.

Songstad anticipates more attempts by the pro-airport side to derail the initiative after the election.

"At least the people of Orange County will have an opportunity to vote on whether they want an airport there or not," he said. "Based on everything we see and read in the newspapers, the people of Orange County don't want an airport there."

If the board follows the alphabet and designates the park initiative Measure W, Songstad said, it would make a great campaign slogan: "W for Win."

The county's selection of letters for initiatives created a stir last year when supervisors chose Measure F as the name for another anti-airport initiative. Measure backers protested, saying F was chosen by the pro-airport board majority to send a message of "failure"--a suggestion dismissed by county officials.

Measure F passed easily with 67% of the vote, but was overturned by a Los Angeles judge.

The same appeals court panel that issued Wednesday's decision will consider at a Dec. 14 hearing whether to overturn the ruling invalidating Measure F. That ruling was issued by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge S. James Otero.

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