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March 8 ballot may challenge L.A.'s voters

Yes or No? Even the City Council is having trouble deciding what measures to present to the public.

November 28, 2010|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

If Los Angeles voters find themselves confused by 10 ballot measures headed their way in the March 8 municipal election, they won't be alone.

Members of the City Council — the group that put those measures on the ballot last week — appeared equally perplexed at times as they attempted to vet each proposal during a series of meetings.

Buffeted by the competing wishes of special interests, the mayor and various civic leaders, council members repeatedly changed their minds on the ballot proposals, hastily rewriting some while killing others outright.

Councilman Jose Huizar provided a glimpse into that disarray last week, as he explained his opposition to a proposed ballot measure that would let the council fire the top executive at the Department of Water and Power.

"I previously voted no on this item and today I voted yes earlier," Huizar told his colleagues. "But now that it's up for reconsideration," he added, "I'm going to be consistent and vote no."

That was only the beginning.

A plan for creating a watchdog at the DWP was amended repeatedly as council members tried to appease the powerful union that represents its employees. A tax on billboards was jettisoned after real estate interests, who contribute to council members' campaigns, demanded that it be pulled from consideration.

A separate tax on oil production was proposed by Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose harbor district has the most refineries. After representatives of those refineries complained, Hahn publicly rescinded her support on the day of the crucial vote.

Hahn's colleagues passed it anyway, delighted to find a new source of money for the city's cash-strapped budget.

Ten ballot proposals ultimately passed the gantlet. They included a proposed tax on medical marijuana, a plan to set aside more money for libraries, a proposal to shore up the city's emergency reserve and a ban on campaign contributions from city contractors.

An 11th measure, the one that would allow the council to fire the DWP general manager, will get a final vote on Dec. 7. Although the council members voted on Nov. 16 to move ahead with the measure, they fell short of the votes needed to put it on the ballot a week later.

That reconsideration exasperated Councilman Tony Cardenas, who demanded an explanation. "Why are we voting on this so many times?" he asked.

"Groundhog Day," replied Deputy City Attorney Dion O'Connell, referring to the movie in which a man relives the same day over and over again.

Confusion was on hand two weeks ago, as council members sorted through 13 ballot proposals in a 48-hour period. During those deliberations, several council members attempted to defeat a plan by Huizar to provide more taxpayer money for political candidates.

Foes of Huizar's plan called for it to be separated from Council President Eric Garcetti's proposal to prohibit certain campaign contributions. Although that effort prevailed on a 9-6 vote, things quickly changed.

Councilman Paul Koretz revealed that he had accidentally voted the wrong way and asked to change his position to a "no" vote. (The council's computers are programmed to vote yes automatically, unless a member specifically indicates otherwise.)

Huizar then announced that Councilman Richard Alarcon had also voted the wrong way and demanded a new vote. Alarcon emerged from a back room and told his colleagues that he voted the wrong way because he was in a crowded nearby snack room and could not reach his computer in time to vote no.

"I was trying to rush in but there was a logjam at the hummus container," he said.

The council agreed to a new vote. Huizar's plan was saved.

As more proposals were added to the ballot, council members found themselves increasingly at odds, making decisions by margins of 8 to 7, 8 to 6 and 7 to 7. There was even a split vote on a plan to remove three provisions of the City Charter that have been deemed unconstitutional in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Supreme Court's decision invalidates the city's limit on the amount of money that "independent expenditure" groups, such as labor unions and business organizations, can contribute to city candidates.

The city's lawyers called for the change to reduce the legal liability that could result from having its law at odds with a Supreme Court ruling.

Six members voted against it anyway.

"I think the Supreme Court is wrong," declared Councilman Bill Rosendahl, before casting his vote against the measure.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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