As if voters haven't been pounded enough, a new round of ballot mania is about to hit Los Angeles, with activists and interest groups threatening to turn to the people to do what city lawmakers have not.
Signature gatherers bankrolled by former Mayor Richard Riordan have already begun collecting names to qualify a spring ballot measure to overhaul the city's pension system. Meanwhile, two opposing medical-marijuana groups are quietly pursuing separate initiatives to allow some pot shops to remain open.
Now, another ballot measure is being threatened at City Hall. This one concerns trash.
A coalition of waste haulers and business groups said this week they are prepared to fund a referendum drive if the City Council approves a plan backed by sanitation officials, environmentalists and unions to create exclusive territories for commercial trash haulers.
The franchise plan, which the council is expected to take up on Wednesday, would increase recycling and improve working conditions, proponents say. Opponents say it will stifle market competition, create a new bureaucracy and result in higher rates that will be passed on to consumers.
The coalition opposing the plan includes trash haulers and others who say they would be hurt by the new system. Spokesman Sean Rossall said member organizations, including Paramount Studios, the California Grocers Assn. and the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, have amassed several hundred thousand dollars to fund a referendum effort if the plan is approved. Their measure would revoke the franchise plan.
Greg Good, who is pushing the franchise system for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, said the referendum threat was disheartening.
"This is special interests and extremely high-paid lobbyists trying to hijack the democratic process because they don't think they're going to get the outcome they want," he said.
This is not the first time special-interest groups have used the threat of a ballot measure as a legislative bargaining chip.
In September, medical marijuana supporters collected the 27,425 signatures necessary to force a referendum to overturn the council's ban on pot dispensaries. Council members avoided putting the issue to voters by repealing the ban themselves.
Months earlier, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation used a similar tactic, collecting signatures for an initiative in order to convince the City Council to adopt a law requiring actors to wear condoms on porn shoots. The council gave final approval in January. The foundation was also behind the measure that went before county voters this week.
Using a ballot measure as leverage is nothing new, according to Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "It's just the way the game is played," Sonenshein said.
Jacob Wexler, who heads the election division in the Office of the City Clerk, said his office has processed more requests than usual for ballot measures this year, and he thinks the victories won by the condom and medical marijuana activists may have something to do with it. "That might have given some people the idea that this was a way to get things done," he said.
Wexler noted that the threshold to qualify a measure for the ballot is lower now than it has been in other years.
Except for charter amendments, such as Riordan's pension proposal, most ballot measures require proponents to collect a number of signatures that corresponds to a percentage of votes cast in the last citywide election.
But election turnout varies significantly.
In 2005, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa beat then-Mayor James Hahn in a high-profile contest, nearly half a million people turned out to the polls. That meant signature gatherers had to collect nearly twice as many names as they do now, because the most recent citywide race, in 2009, drew only 274,000 voters as Villaraigosa sailed to an easy reelection.