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Wage Hike Backers Say Opponents Violated Election Law

A community group in support of San Diego's minimum wage hike claims opponents of the increase are violating state law by lying during a referendum campaign to put the measure before voters. Raise Up San Diego said people working for the San Diego Small Business Coalition violated California Elections Code because they made false statements to voters to sign petitions in an effort to put the wage hike on the ballot.

A spokesman for the small-business group has previously said any signature gatherer who lied would be fired.

At a press conference, Councilwoman Myrtle Cole and Assemblywomen Lorena Gonzalez and Shirley Weber call on the state attorney and district attorney to investigate the Small Business Coalition's signature gathering process, Sept. 15, 2014.

The small business group needs to collect nearly 34,000 signatures by Wednesday in order to force the city's recently approved minimum wage increase on the ballot. If the group is successful, the plan to raise San Diego's minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017 would be put on hold until after San Diegans cast their votes.

Raise Up San Diego launched its own campaign to encourage voters not to sign. The group also circulated forms to enable voters to rescind their signatures if they felt they were misled.

Throughout the process, each side has accused the other of wrong-doing. The business group claims Raise Up volunteers have harassed signature gathers and even stole a worker's materials, while minimum wage hike supporters shared videos and reports of signature gatherers using false statements.

What The Law Says

California Elections Code section 18600 states a person is guilty of a misdemeanor who:

"Circulating, as principal or agent, or having charge or control of the circulation of, or obtaining signatures to, any state or local initiative, referendum or recall petition, intentionally misrepresents or intentionally makes any false statement concerning the contents, purport or effect of the petition to any person who signs, or who desires to sign, or who is requested to sign, or who makes inquiries with reference to it, or to whom it is presented for his or her signature."

At a Monday press conference organized by Raise Up San Diego, Councilwoman Myrtle Cole and Assemblywomen Lorena Gonzalez and Shirley Weber called on the state attorney general and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis to investigate the signature gathering process.

San Diego State University political science professor Brian Adams said Raise Up's announcement is not unusual, but violation of the rule is difficult to prove.

"It is a common accusation in the sense that you do hear this a lot," he said. "It’s actually very rare for a full investigation to actually be done on it, and even more rare for actually people to be found" in violation of such things.

Adams pointed to the recent fight over Barrio Logan's community plan as an example. After City Council approved an updated community plan for the San Diego neighborhood, the Port of San Diego Ship Repair Association launched a referendum because it said the plan would kill tens of thousands of jobs.

The Environmental Health Coalition, which supported the community plan, accused the association of lying to gather signatures and took the matter to court.

In the end, a San Diego County Superior Court judge agreed with the coalition that signature gatherers misled people to get them to sign but said that wasn't enough to invalidate the signatures and keep the measure off the ballot.

“The evidence suggests that although the (ship repair) association could have been more proactive (it) did not have ultimate control of the circulators, who were independent contractors,” the court ruling said.

San Diegans voted down the community plan update.

Adams said he couldn’t recall the last time signatures were thrown out because of a violation of the rule.

KPBS reporter Claire Trageser contributed to this story.

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