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Councilman Gloria Wants To Make It Harder To Pass Referendums In San Diego

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San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria will ask the City Council and state lawmakers to look into making it harder to put referendums on the ballot after legislation he supported, including raising the minimum wage, were derailed.

San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria will ask the City Council and state lawmakers to look into making it harder to put referendums on the ballot after legislation he supported, including raising the minimum wage, were derailed.


Todd Gloria Memo on Referendums

Todd Gloria Memo on Referendums

Todd Gloria's memo on exploring changes to the referendum process.

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Since December 2013, business groups have gathered enough signatures to block three City Council decisions: an update to Barrio Logan's community plan, an affordable housing linkage fee and an increase to the city's minimum wage.

Voters overturned the Barrio Logan community plan update, and the City Council rescinded its decision on raising the linkage fee, a construction fee that goes toward paying for affordable housing. The minimum wage increase will go before voters in 2016.

Gloria said there was "documented deceit" by the paid signature gatherers who worked to qualify some of the referendums, and he wants to make the process more transparent.

"I think that every San Diegan has real questions about whether the referendary tool is really a tool of the people any longer, or is it really just a high-priced tool that's reserved for folks who can afford lobbyists, consultants and others to really affect a political outcome that they could not get through the normal public process," he said.

Gloria said while some of the changes he'd like to explore can only be made at the state level, there are things the city could change, including who funds referendum efforts. He said the financial backers of the minimum wage referendum, including the California Restaurant Association and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, were not known until after the referendum process ended.

"I think that information would have been informative to the public," he said. "The city could improve the disclosure requirements so that more information would be given to the public in a timely fashion."

Gloria also said he'd like to explore allowing proponents and opponents of a referendum to be present while signatures are being verified. Currently, only those who sponsored the referendum are present.

"Those are two things we as a council could take action on, with the help of the people potentially," he said.

A spokeswoman for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce declined to comment on Gloria's proposed changes.

Jason Roe, who runs the consulting group Revolvis that managed the minimum wage referendum, said Gloria's proposal would lead to disenfranchisement of voters.

"He's attacking the process of putting any public policy on the ballot, but the reality is that voters are going to have their say," Roe said. "The referendum process allows voters to vote on issues that are very important to the city, and I don't understand why someone who's in a position that (Gloria) is in would think it's OK to take away the right of our voters to have a say on these issues."

Roe said it was premature to say whether he'd be involved in fighting against Gloria's proposals if they gain traction.

"I have no idea what the general sentiment is of folks that might be interested in standing up to this bullying from (Gloria), but it's so ridiculous and so anti-democratic that I have a feeling that public opinion may dissuade him from pursuing it much further," he said.

The City Council's Charter Review Committee is already set to review the city's charter and make updates, and Gloria said he wants his changes to be part of that process.

"I would characterize many of these as being technical changes," he said.

Gloria sent a memo Thursday to Council President Sherri Lightner, who also chairs the Charter Review Committee, outlining four pieces of local law he'd like to see changed. They are:

  • Providing "more timely disclosure" of who funds referendum campaigns.
  • Allowing proponents and opponents of a referendum to be present while the Registrar of Voters verifies signatures.
  • Reviewing San Diego Charter Section 23: Initiative, Referendum and Recall, including local signature gathering requirements.
  • Reviewing Municipal Code Article 7, Division 11: Referendum, including updating and clarifying language in Section 27.1116: Withdrawal of Signature from Referendary Petition, Section 27.1117: Time for Submitting Referendary Petition to Clerk and the council's timeline for acting on referendum petitions.

Gloria asked Lightner to put an information item on the Charter Review Committee agenda in early 2015.

When asked whether Lightner would docket a discussion, a spokeswoman said Lightner has asked all councilmembers to send her potential charter changes by Feb. 2. Once all of that feedback has been collected, she will then "organize the meetings thematically."

Gloria also wants to work at the state level on exploring reform, including:

  • Disclosure of who funds referendum initiatives and limiting funding for signature gathering efforts.
  • Raising the percentage of signatures required.
  • Regulating what information is provided on the referendum petition.
  • "Ensuring petition gatherers use factual statements to attract potential signers."

While the city has already adopted its legislative package for the year, Gloria said it could be amended.

"If my council colleagues see as I do that this is an area in need of reform, then we should have the city go on the record as saying this is an area we'd like the state Legislature to spend some time and ask our lobbyists to spend some of their time and to work this issue through," he said.

This summer, a federal appeals court panel overturned a California law that required sponsors of ballot initiatives to identify themselves on their petitions.

Gloria said his purpose is not to make it harder to put referendums on the ballot but to make the process more transparent. However, his proposed areas of change include increasing the percentage of signatures required in a referendum drive.

"That's not my primary intent but we do have to ask, is it simply a matter of a business decision, as we've seen in some cases recently," he said. "If you're a developer who says it'd be easier for me to pay people to gather signatures than to pay an affordable housing fee, then they're going to make that decision. I don't think that was what was intended when the referendary tool was adopted."


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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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