To combat the tactics of unscrupulous signature collectors for petitions seeking to overturn local law, the Beverly Hills City Council has been working on ways to increase transparency and accountability.
Opponents of a recently passed basement ordinance, which regulates the size of development, collected signatures for its repeal. County elections officials determined that there were not enough valid signatures collected, but city officials worried about the tactics used to get signatures.
“The council received reports alleging that circulators of the referendum petition made false statements regarding the effect of the ordinance in an effort to induce residents to sign the petition,” Emily B. Milder, assistant city attorney, and Larry Wiener, city attorney, said in a report to council at its last study session. “Moreover, voters were not informed about who was hiring the signature gatherers to allow them to determine the identities of the referendum’s supporters. The council expressed interest in adopting new measures aimed at enhancing transparency and curbing abuse of the local referendum and initiative processes going forward.”
Regulations that council members are considering, according to city staff, include having petition circulators wear badges that reveal whether they are paid (and who is paying them) or volunteers; having petition circulators or proponents register as local legislative advocates; making a neutral summary of the purpose of a potential referendum available to the public; and temporarily suspending projects affected by a zoning ordinance.
“I think we need to have a very, very strong message,” Councilwoman Lili Bosse said. “Just like we’re trying to suggest to all the criminals out there don’t do any crime in Beverly Hills, it won’t be tolerated. I think we need to be a leading city that says we’re not going to tolerate any false, misleading due process. I think we need to push the envelope as far as we can because I think this is something that can continue again and again.
“I would like to – out of the gate – be very, very strong on this,” she continued. “I think we need to send a very strong message that we’re not going to be steamrolled over from the truth.”
“The more information we put on the badge, the less likely it’s all going to be read. So I think we need to have the type large enough so that the most important items would be on the badge,” Friedman said.
City staff also mentioned a Ninth Circuit ruling that determined it would not help potential signers of a petition to know where the person gathering signatures is from. Councilman John Mirisch said that that information could be pertinent for local measures.
“If you’ve got someone here from La Crescenta who’s opining on something that’s extremely local, then they’re not qualified to do so,” Mirisch said.
Legal precedent from the Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit regarding circulators of petitions will factor into any local laws the City Council considers, city staff indicated in its report. Requiring circulators to register as legislative advocates, for example, may not survive a court challenge.
“The city may require ballot measure proponents to register as legislative advocates under the city’s legislative advocacy ordinance,” according to the city staff report. “However, a court would likely disapprove of requiring petition circulators to register under this ordinance, as this would result in public disclosure of circulators’ identities while a petition is still in circulation.”
The West Hollywood City Council mentioned similar issues with a petition to overturn an approved project at the site of The Factory building. Petitioners trying to overturn the project have been accused by residents and the developer of misrepresenting the effects the project would have on the community and that worker would be underpaid. During the council’s last meeting, the city attorney lamented state law limitations for the ability to guard against misinformation spread during the signature gathering process. The West Hollywood City Council is not currently undertaking an effort to implement its own local regulations regarding petition gatherers.
“The current system allows for rampant abuse,” Beverly Hills resident Debbie Weiss said. “The biggest issue is the intimidating and the lying tactics that were used. As long as the signature gatherers are able to use these tactics, any ordinance can be unjustly suspended. Because right now they’re able to say anything they want, they’re able to put out any lie they want to get people to sign.”
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