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Politics

San Diego Council Committee Gives Tentative OK To Revise Referendum Process

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Proposals that would revise the city of San Diego's referendum process, primarily by letting the public know earlier who is funding campaigns, were given a tentative go-ahead Thursday by the Charter Review Committee.

The panel unanimously approved a request by Councilman Todd Gloria to have the city's Ethics Commission draft changes to the election law that would require:

• the "paid for" disclosure on advertising literature to also be included on petitions circulated for voter signatures;

• identification of the top two donors of $10,000 or more by referendum proponents;

• the filing of independent expenditure and 24-hour contribution reports while signatures are being collected; and

• the filing of a form called the "Campaign Comprehensive Statement" within 10 days after the petitions begin circulating.

The revisions would then be brought back to the City Council for possible adoption.

Gloria was the chief proponent of a proposal last year to increase the minimum wage in San Diego above the statewide level. A pay hike was approved by the City Council, but a referendum forced the issue to a public vote, which will take place next year.

"We have seen several recent examples of wealthy interests using the referendum and deceptive methods to block progress here in San Diego," said Gloria, who backed several other council actions that were overturned by petition drives.

"Documented lies and extreme levels of funding of out-of-town paid signature-gatherers raise specific concerns over our referendum process that are worth examining," Gloria said. "Referendums are meant to be a legitimate check-and-balance by the people, and not a means for special interests with deep pockets to buy results that could not be obtained through the public legislative process."

Ethics Commission Director Stacey Fulhorst told the council that the state sets minimum funding disclosure standards, but many cities go further.

San Diego has stricter disclosure requirements for candidate campaigns, but not for campaigns on petitions or ballot measures, which only have to follow state law in filing funding disclosure statements on a quarterly basis, she said.

Gloria's referendum proposals also asked the City Attorney to draft language that would "ensure consistency, clarity and correctness" to the applicable section of the municipal code.

No public speakers opposed his requests. Three council members on the opposite side of Gloria on most of the issues that were overturned by referendums — Chris Cate, Mark Kersey and, via a spokesman, Scott Sherman — were supportive because of the increased transparency.

Also briefly discussed by the council members was adjusting the threshold for the number of valid signatures it would take to qualify for the ballot. The current target in San Diego is 5 percent of registered voters, or a little over 33,000.

City Clerk Elizabeth Maland said she looked at 33 other charter cities, and 27 percent require 10 percent. Some other municipalities call for 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last mayoral election.

Any change in San Diego's threshold would be handled separately because it would require a City Charter amendment.

The council took the unusual step of holding a special meeting as a "Committee as a Whole" to consider Gloria's proposals. Lightner issued a memo to her colleagues last week that said the issues should go before all of the council members, not just a single committee.