City Hall and Los Angeles County elected leaders are warning that if voters pass a June ballot measure that forces the city to create its own health department, it will increase costs and erode essential services now provided by the county.
But the officials find themselves in a quandary: Although they vehemently oppose the measure, state law blocks them from publicly financing an opposition campaign.
"It's a real challenge," said Miguel Santana, the city's chief administrative officer. "We have a responsibility to lay out the facts as we understand them. Obviously, we're not going to campaign. That's inappropriate, not within our purview."
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which created the proposal, contends that the county and city have both clearly crossed the line.
"If they're not supposed to be campaigning, they're doing a great imitation," he said.
Weinstein's group has frequently complained that the county department is too big and does a poor job of controlling sexually transmitted diseases and other health problems. A smaller city-run agency, they argue, would be more effective and accountable to the people of Los Angeles. So the group gathered enough voter signatures to qualify a ballot measure and could spend millions of dollars pressing for passage.
County and city officials can wage a legal battle to knock the measure off the June ballot. Three weeks ago, both filed lawsuits, arguing that the measure is invalid because it seeks to take away administrative decision-making authority that is the purview of county and city leaders, and that it is preempted by state law.
Once a measure qualifies for the ballot, however, getting it deemed invalid before voters have an opportunity to weigh in is a tall hurdle, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
"It's pretty difficult," he said. "That doesn't mean it can't be done."
Richard Hasen, a professor who specializes in election law at UC Irvine, said that courts tend to avoid weighing in before an election if the claim is challenging the substance of a ballot measure. When they do get involved prior to an election, it's usually because someone has questioned how a measure was placed on the ballot, he said.
Weinstein derided the decision that city and county officials made to sue, accusing them of having a "troubled relationship with democracy, with the citizens' right to decide."
If the legal efforts fail, all sides will gear up for a fight at the ballot box. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is deep-pocketed and has shown a willingness to spend heavily on its causes. Last year, the group spent more than $2.3 million to pass a ballot measure requiring condoms to be worn in pornographic films made in Los Angeles County.
Elected leaders can raise money and use the bully pulpit of their offices to fight the city health department measure. Already, both the county Board of Supervisors and the City Council have held public hearings at which elected officials and bureaucrats painted grim pictures of what would happen if the measure passed. Among other things, they say city residents would be left unprotected in the immediate aftermath, and that cuts to other services including law enforcement would be needed to pay for the creation of a city health agency.
"We … know there is a difference between advocacy and campaigning on a ballot measure, versus informing and educating about what public health provides and what could be impacted," county spokesman David Sommers said. "Outside counsel is there to advise on the difference and make sure we abide by the laws."
Weinstein said the public hearings the county and the city have held failed to include balance.
"In terms of the spirit of democracy and debate, when they've been having these motions to oppose our initiative and to sue, they never once asked us to testify, neither the city nor the county," he said. "So they give an unlimited amount of time to their own people to demonize this proposal" and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
He said that if members of his group were to offer their contrasting view at a Board of Supervisors or City Council meeting, "we would get two minutes [to speak] along with the gadflies, and we're not going to do that."
Weinstein said both the city and county have attacked the proposal on political and financial grounds, but have failed to answer the underlying health concerns he has raised, such as the increase in syphilis infections and recent tuberculosis outbreaks.
He also said he has offered to meet with city and county officials about their concerns, for example the timetable that the ballot measure contains for the city to set up its own department, and he has not heard back from either entity.