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Democracy Inc.

Businesses take to the ballot box to wage war on competitors. Thousand Oaks is only the latest battleground.

May 18, 2008|Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Times staff writer, will moderate a panel on business and the local ballot process on May 27 at the Autry National Center.

In Thousand Oaks, the owner of a local chain of home improvement stores called Do It Centers is locked in fierce, expensive competition with Home Depot. But the contest has nothing to do with which can offer the lowest prices and the friendliest service, or which will sell you the better chain saw.

No, even though this war is all about business, it's being fought on a political battlefield, and will come to a head on June 3, when the residents of Thousand Oaks vote on a municipal ballot initiative known as Measure B.

Measure B represents a small but growing species of ballot measure, used by businesses to impede their competitors at the polls rather than the checkout counter. As such, the measure is being watched far beyond the city of 127,000 people, with California's planners, developers and full-time initiative industry showing the most interest.

In Thousand Oaks, the true nature of the contest has been partly obscured by the "yes" and "no" campaigns, each of which strain to argue that Measure B has something to do with broader public policy issues.

Supporters portray Measure B as an anti-traffic initiative that would give voters the power to approve or deny future large development proposals to ward off massive traffic jams. Opponents all but claim that Measure B would create a one-city Great Depression in Thousand Oaks by forcing big companies to locate elsewhere, preventing the development of a recreation center and starving Thousand Oaks of the funds it needs for schools and cops.

Two of the state's top political consultants have gotten involved. Most of the town has chosen sides (even the Little Leagues issued endorsements), and business groups and elected officials are divided. Personal insults are being exchanged.

But the claims of each side are so numerous and -- let's be kind -- exaggerated that it might be a good idea for everyone to take a deep breath and examine the most recent campaign-finance filings. These reports, detailing contributions and expenditures in 2007 and in the first 2 1/2 months of 2008, offer a far clearer picture of what's at stake, and for whom.

The "yes" campaign, euphemistically called the Committee to Keep Thousand Oaks Traffic Moving, had received more than $329,000 -- all of it, save a single $150 check, from Do It Center.

The "no" campaign, with the equally meaningless name Citizens for a Strong & Healthy Thousand Oaks, had received more than $400,000 -- every single penny of which comes from Home Depot, a corporate citizen of Atlanta.

If you were to take the campaigns at face value, you would no doubt conclude that it is mighty nice of these companies to spend such large amounts for the causes of good traffic and strong economic health in Thousand Oaks. But skeptics might point out that these firms are a wee bit self-interested.

Take the language of Measure B. The initiative, if approved, would require a vote of the people if a commercial development is more than 75,000 square feet and causes a certain level of traffic congestion. It just so happens that Home Depots are bigger than 75,000 square feet, and so Measure B might slow down or even block Home Depot's proposed new store on the site of a former Kmart not far from the Do It Center on Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

On the flip side, it makes perfect sense that Home Depot, for all its supposed concern about Thousand Oaks, actually opposes Measure B's plan to put development questions in the hands of voters because it prefers to make its deals directly with city councils, which usually can't resist the lure of Home Depot jobs, sales tax revenue and campaign contributions.

Rhetoric aside, voters in Thousand Oaks are being asked a deceptively simple question: In which store would you prefer to shop for hardware? The question may be life and death for a certain tool-belt-wearing demographic. But overall, the answer is far more important to the competing businesses than it is to the future of Thousand Oaks.

Don't feel too bad, Thousand Oaks residents. You're hardly the first city whose ballot has been used as a stage for business-on-business warfare. In the last six years, similar local ballot measure fights have broken out in El Segundo (developer versus developer), Glendale (a mall versus retail developer) and Beverly Hills (hotel versus hotel). In Anaheim last year, a tussle between the Walt Disney Co. and SunCal Cos., a major developer based in Irvine, over the rezoning of a property in the city's resort district triggered two local ballot measures. (After several months of campaigning, SunCal decided not to fund its side of the campaign, and the measures backed by Disney were enacted by the City Council directly and pulled from the ballot.)

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