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Term Limits Ruling Issued

State appeals court permits City Council measure to appear on Nov. 7 ballot, but decision deepens uncertainties.

September 09, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Although a ballot measure to relax term limits for the Los Angeles City Council still faces questions over its legality, a state appellate court Friday allowed the measure to be included on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal also scheduled a hearing Oct. 3 to determine whether -- as a Superior Court judge ruled Thursday -- the ballot measure violates the state Constitution by combining two separate issues.

The appeals court decision, while keeping the measure alive for several weeks, also deepened the uncertainty surrounding the measure.

Proposed by two prominent civic organizations and placed on the ballot by the City Council last month, the measure asks voters to give council members, who are now limited to two terms, the opportunity to serve three. It also proposes several restrictions on lobbyists.

"Because the petition raises significant legal issues of great public importance, we intend to decide the petition on its merits," a three-judge panel wrote.

Even if the ballot measure is found to be illegal next month, it remains unclear what would happen next. The court could rule that votes on the item not be counted, or the court could delay a decision until after the election.

The court's action Friday also poses campaign problems for the measure's supporters and authors, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters, Los Angeles. How do they stump for a measure that may be struck down before it reaches voters?

Superior Court Judge Robert H. O'Brien ruled Thursday that the measure violated the state Constitution's single-subject rule that forbids combining two unrelated items. The city, in its appeal, maintains that the rule does not apply to ballot measures sponsored by the city.

Nick Velasquez, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said the city could appeal the case to the state Supreme Court if the appeals court doesn't overturn O'Brien's decision.

"I'm not saying we would, but we may," Velasquez said.

Shortly after Friday's decision, council President Eric Garcetti released a statement:

"I am pleased that a higher court has decided to stay Judge O'Brien's earlier decision. This gives the voters a chance to decide for themselves how to keep special interests out of city government."

In an interview, Paul Jacob, the president of U.S. Term Limits, the group that funded the legal challenge to the ballot measure, countered:

"They put something on the ballot that is supposedly about ethics that anyone who can breathe realizes was put there to sneak through the item about term limits," he said.

"There is an alternative," Jacob said. "They could stop and put something before voters next time that is straightforward about term limits. I think they would still lose, but at least you would be able to respect them."

Richard L. Hasen, a professor who specializes in election law at Loyola Law School, said the Court of Appeal's decision Friday potentially bodes well for the measure's backers.

"When the court of appeals decides to stay an issue, it's looking at three issues -- the harm to the parties if it gets it wrong, the likelihood that an appealing party is going to win and the public interest," Hasen said. "If the court thought that the city's position was very weak, it would be unlikely to grant a stay."

One of the more notable barometers of how the ballot measure may be faring in the court of public opinion may come from the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. The business group, based in the San Fernando Valley, is scheduled to decide Sept. 19 whether to support the measure.

"A lot of my board members, if they feel this isn't legal, are going to have a hard time supporting it," said Brendan L. Huffman, the group's president. "Personally, I think that the league and the chamber were well-intentioned, but this came up so quickly that we're being forced to respond to something we really weren't prepared for."

The city is also appealing another case involving the ballot measure.

In that case, brought by another Los Angeles resident, O'Brien ruled that the title of the ballot measure must be amended to include the word "lengthening" to make the measure's intent more clear to voters. The city is seeking to have the title reflect only that council members would have three terms if approved. Garcetti has said that "lengthening" is a politically loaded term.

Printing of ballots begins Tuesday, and changes could be made until then, said Dean Logan, the chief deputy for the Los Angeles County Registrar.

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