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A Battle For Voters’ Signatures To Overturn San Diego’s Minimum Wage Hike

This story has been updated.

Evening Edition

Above: It's been less than a week since a business group started collecting the 33,866 signatures it needs to force a vote on the city of San Diego's minimum wage increase. The effort has already turned nasty, with accusations of lies and aggression on both sides.

Aired 8/28/14 on KPBS News.

Opponents of San Diego's minimum wage increase have three weeks left to collect nearly 34,000 signatures from voters to force the issue on to a ballot. Otherwise, the minimum wage will rise to $9.75 an hour on Jan. 1.

Molly Kennington had a very confusing shopping trip to the Clairemont Sprouts this week. A signature gatherer was out front asking people to sign a petition that would place San Diego's recently passed minimum wage increase on the ballot.

But Kennington said the man didn't state it that simply.

"The way it was described to me was the opposite of what I thought I wanted to have happen," she said. "I said to the petition person, 'Wait, explain it to me carefully here,' and then I went ahead and signed it."

Then another customer pulled Kennington aside and told her she'd signed to stop the minimum wage increase, which Kennington supports.

How We Got Here

The San Diego City Council voted 6-3 in July to increase the hourly minimum wage from $9 to $9.75 on Jan. 1, and to require employers to provide five earned sick days a year. Wages would increase again to $10.50 on Jan. 1, 2016, and to $11.50 on Jan. 1, 2017. In 2019, the minimum wage would be tied to inflation.

All the Democrats on the council supported it, with the Republicans opposed.

Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer vetoed the increase this month, and the council voted to override him.

Then a group of businesses, with funding from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and trade groups such as the California Restaurant Association, organized a drive to collect 33,866 signatures from voters by Sept. 17.

If they're successful, the wage increase would be put on hold until voters have a chance to weigh in, which likely wouldn't happen until June 2016.

Special Feature Have You Seen Signature Gatherers in San Diego?

KPBS wants to know if you've seen signature gatherers with petitions to overturn San Diego's minimum wage increase. If so, what they are saying?

"So I went back, crossed it all out," she said.

That's one less signature toward the total, but there are still three weeks left in the battle for voters' John Hancocks.

Some San Diego voters are still smarting from last year's petition drive to overturn a community plan update in the Barrio Logan neighborhood. Many overheard signature gatherers misleading voters to get them to sign, and attorneys challenged the petition's validity in court. A judge ruled that while some signature gatherers may have made misleading statements, which is illegal under state law, the issue should go before voters. San Diegans voted to overturn the plan update in June.

This time, supporters of the minimum wage increase are taking a more proactive approach. A group called Raise Up San Diego organized by the Center on Policy Initiatives with nonprofit and union funding is sending out volunteers and some paid workers to the same store entrances that signature gatherers occupy to tell voters not to sign. This effort has turned nasty at times, with accusations of lies and aggression on both sides.

The Raise Up San Diego petition that asks voters not to sign the official petition to force San Diego's minimum wage increase on the ballot. Two Raise Up volunteers held the petition outside the Clairemont Home Depot on Monday, August 25, 2014.

Two Raise Up San Diego volunteers stood directly across from a paid signature gatherer at the Clairemont Home Depot on Monday and brandished their own petition. It asked people to sign to pledge not to sign the other petition.

The volunteers wouldn't give their names, but a Raise Up San Diego spokeswoman confirmed they are with her organization.

Some San Diegans reported to KPBS that they have seen signature gatherers saying their petition is to raise the minimum wage. It's possible signature gatherers are misrepresenting their petitions, or that voters are seeing this alternate petition and mistaking it for the official one. Crystal Page, the Raise Up spokeswoman, said they're asking for signatures both as a commitment to not signing the official petition and to recruit volunteers.

One of the Raise Up volunteers shouted loudly each time a customer entered Home Depot: "Support fair wages for your family. Do not sign their petition."

Across from them, a paid signature gatherer who also would not give his name sat quietly at a table draped with signs that read, "Keep Small Business in San Diego. Stop the 43.75% Minimum Wage Increase Ordinance." When asked what he was doing, the man said, "Stopping the increase in minimum wage in San Diego."

While the percentage of the increase is different depending on whom you ask, this man was accurately stating his intentions. Two other signature gatherers observed by a KPBS reporter outside Vons stores in Normal Heights and Scripps Ranch also didn't lie about their petitions, saying they were there to "let the voters of the city of San Diego decide yes or no on minimum wage."

Signature Gatherers' Script

The passage of the Minimum Wage Ordinance by the City Council threatens our economic balance by weakening San Diego's ability to create and retain jobs.

The passage of this burdensome regulation ignores legislation that was recently passed at the State Capitol and signed by the Governor raising California's minimum wage by 25% over an eighteen month period (July 1, 2014 - January 1, 2016). The result combined 43.75% wage hike in San Diego.

—Stop Big Unions — they almost bankrupted the city before — and here they come again.

—Stop Big Unions — 43.75% wage hike will seriously harm our local economy.

—Ignore Big Unions — exercise your democratic right to reverse BAD laws.

—Help San Diego's small business — stop the 43.75% wage hike ordinance.

—Protect our local economy — and STOP the 43.75% wage hike.

—Keep small businesses IN San Diego — STOP the 43.75% wage hike.

—Minimum wage is already increasing 25% — STOP a ridiculous 43.75% hike.

—Help Small Business Leaders — STOP the 43.75% wage hike.

This script was provided to KPBS by the San Diego Small Business Coalition. A spokesman for the group said it's what is given to signature gatherers.

But videos sent to Raise Up San Diego show one signature gatherer saying incorrectly, "The state already voted on it to go up to $11.20, I think it is, and then on top of that the city wants to get it up, I think to $15, which is what Seattle has done," and another proclaiming "they want to double the minimum wage to 50 percent."

Page with Raise Up San Diego said the people who recorded the videos do not want to be identified.

Jason Roe, a spokesman for the business group opposing the increase, said they're working to find out who those signature gatherers were and will fire them. On Wednesday morning, Roe said one of the signature gatherers had been identified and would be fired.

"There's no reason for us to mislead the voters on our petition, because the message we're delivering is the strongest message possible, allow the voters of San Diego to have a right to vote on this issue," he said.

City Council President Todd Gloria, who pushed for the minimum wage increase, posted a video on Instagram showing a signature gatherer asking him, "Have you signed the petition so the state can't force the city of San Diego to increase the minimum wage yet?"

Roe said that worker likely got his script backwards. He allowed KPBS to view what he said are the script guidelines given to signature gatherers, which read: "The passage of this burdensome regulation ignores legislation that was recently passed at the State Capitol and signed by the Governor raising California's minimum wage by 25% over an eighteen month period (July 1, 2014 - January 1, 2016). The result combined 43.75% wage hike in San Diego."

Carolyn Ostic gets a voter to sign a petition to force a vote on San Diego's minimum wage increase outside a Clairemont Vons on Monday, August 25, 2014.

KPBS journalists also watched a signature gatherer at work outside the Clairemont Vons. Carolyn Ostic knew she was being recorded and made an accurate pitch, although not one from the script Roe provided.

"This just puts the issue on the ballot so the voters can educate themselves on it and decide if they want the increase or don't," Ostic told one shopper. "City Council's voted for it, (the) mayor feels it's a bad idea, so let's educate ourselves and decide one way or the other."

"I thought they were already going to do that," the shopper said.

"City Council's approved it, but the mayor feels there are some problems with it and feels we shouldn't do it," Ostic replied. "And I feel if there is conflict and they're not agreeing, that the voters should look at the entire content and make sure they agree. You're just putting it on the ballot, you're not voting one way or the other."

The woman shrugged, took Ostic's pen and signed.

Ostic owns the signature gathering firm Goldstein Ostic & Associates, which worked on the successful campaign to overturn the Barrio Logan Community Plan Update. Her company is subcontracted by another signature gathering company, National Petition Management, which was paid more than $30,000 by last year's campaign to overturn the Barrio Logan Community Plan Update.

Ostic told KPBS she's paid about $2 a signature and earns less than the minimum wage (currently $9 an hour) on most days during a petition drive. This may be true of other signature gatherers, but Ostic's company takes in much more.

She said she's worked on other petition drives in the past, and said she believes in the causes.

"This one I feel much stronger about," she said, referring to overturning the minimum wage increase. "I felt strong about the other issues, but this one I feel really strongly needs to be on the ballot."

Robert Nothoff with Raise Up San Diego said his group hasn't decided yet how many paid workers it will hire to oppose signature gatherers, but said they'll pay more than the minimum wage.

Roe with the business group said Raise Up volunteers have been aggressive, in one case stealing clipboards with completed petitions from a signature gather.

Police initially said they could not verify that a theft report had been filed on the incident. But on Thursday, a police spokesman updated that information to say a report was filed last week. He said police were called to a Vons on Clairemont Drive at about 11 a.m. on Aug. 22. Steve Boyd Ostic, a signature gatherer, told police two men had stolen the petitions, and he filed a petty theft report.

The loss was listed as $244, the value of the signatures he had collected on the petitions and the value of the clipboards. No arrests have been made.

Roe said that some people collecting signatures also have been followed home. "They've been verbally accosted, they've had people trying to provoke them into physical confrontations," he said.

Nothoff said Raise Up supporters wouldn't act aggressively.

"Their main purpose is to go out there and educate, to make sure that when someone is coming up to a petition gatherer who is lying to them, to make sure they can balance out that argument and make sure they're making an informed decision on why not to sign that," he said.

So, the battle for and against the minimum wage increase rages on. Roe said he's confident they'll get at least 50,000 signatures — more than enough to force the increase on the ballot, likely in June 2016.

Editor's note: The paid signature gatherer in this story originally only gave her first name. KPBS later confirmed her name is Carolyn Ostic, and that she owns a signature gathering company. This story has been updated to reflect this new information.

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