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Government Insiders Threaten the Initiative Process | Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association – Mozilla Firefox

(Although Rex Rabin of the Sacramento Bee may have a different opinion on the Initiative process, we tend to agree with Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Tax Institute. We are blessed with the ability to force grass-roots democracy on our government leaders. Some of those same leaders are threatening to take away this tool of self-determination – Jeff)


August 18, 2013

By Jon Coupal

Are you and your neighbors fed up with the policies of your local officials? For over one hundred years, disgruntled Californians have had the option of responding to onerous local ordinances or other government decisions by using the initiative to affect change, but a recent appellate court decision may mean the end of the voters’ right to use the initiative process at the local level.

It is no secret that politicians and bureaucrats detest the initiative process. Government insiders find it annoying that average citizens have the option to place measures on the ballot which can spoil their best laid plans.

Of course the initiative process was not established to make the political class more comfortable. It was intended to allow voters to act as the lawmakers of last resort when representatives proved to be indolent, incompetent, corrupt, or just plain unresponsive. Many Californians are aware that that the state-level initiative and referendum were adopted in 1911, but initiative rights at the county level date back to 1893. Unfortunately, this local option may be about to end if an appellate court decision, that allows the Mission Springs Water District (MSWD) to reject placing a qualified initiative on the ballot, is upheld by the California Supreme Court.

When Mission Springs water users reacted to a 40% rate increase by collecting signatures to qualify an initiative that would roll back the increase, while allowing annual adjustments for inflation, the MSWD was required by statute to place the initiative on the next regularly scheduled election ballot. However, the District withheld the initiative from the ballot and instead sued the initiative proponents for declaratory relief. It alleged that, without the 40% increase, it would be unable to pay its bills (a claim that initiative sponsors who are all current or former elected officials, say is bogus).

On behalf of initiative sponsors, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association attorneys filed a motion, seeking to dismiss the case as a meritless “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAP) == these suits are used by government agencies to intimidate and harass citizens who actively oppose their actions.

Taxpayer attorneys argued that local agencies, when presented with a duly qualified initiative, do not have the option of withholding it from the voters and filing a years-long action for declaratory relief. Rather, they are required by statute to place the initiative on the ballot and let the voters approve or reject it while the issue is timely. If the voters reject the initiative, it is then unnecessary for either side to incur the expense of litigation. If the voters approve it, there is still ample opportunity for the agency to seek judicial review.

The court denied the motion and said where a local agency contends that an initiative is invalid, it may withhold the initiative from the ballot and sue the proponents for declaratory relief, even though such cases take years to decide. This means the government may now simply withhold an initiative from the ballot for any reason, and file an action for declaratory relief against the proponents. Then, whether the government wins the case or loses, it wins — because it has succeeded in keeping the initiative off the ballot.

While Mission Springs involved an initiative to roll back a rate increase, many other initiative types will be affected by this decision. Proposed land use changes, term limits, changes to public employee benefits, government transparency, and many other initiative proposals have met opposition from elected officials. That is why the people, in their constitution, reserved the power of initiative — so that they could pass needed laws that their elected officials were unwilling to enact. But if elected officials can prevent such initiatives from ever seeing the light of day, and if the initiative backers are rewarded for their time and sacrifice by getting dragged into court for years, then the right of initiative may as well not exist, for no sane person would exercise it. For a meaningful right of initiative to continue to exist in California, it is imperative that the Mission Springs decision be reversed.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is petitioning the California Supreme Court for review. We are counting on the justices to agree that the people’s right to the initiative should not be arbitrarily denied by local officials who believe they may be inconvenienced by the passage of a properly qualified measure.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Tustin PIO Resigns. No Communication?

While we were out enjoying the Tustin Tiller Days Parade from our front porch, we got word that the city’s Public Information Officer, Lisa Woolery, abruptly resigned her position with the city. I reached out to several sources in the city and even emailed Lisa to find out the details. This evening, we finally received an email from Lisa, who stated the move was purely career-oriented. “I’m ready for new challenges and a better salary.”

Lisa had been with the city for over 6 years. She came to the position with outstanding credentials: a former teacher,  a masters in communications from CSUF and has worked in the field for over 15 years. She is only one of 1,400 public relaitions professionals to have earned the Accredited Public Relations certification from the Public Relations Society of America.She was named Public Information Officer of the Year in February and both The Liberal OC and Our Town Tustin applauded her achievements.

It was unfortunate the kudos were one sided. Over the year, Woolery had managed to stop communicating with local blogs, including the Lib and us, and apparently only worked with Ellyse James of the Orange County Register, whom she was more than happy to feed the stories of Tustin’s bright side. She was not happy with criticism of the city or, in particular, the (un) transparency in city government that was supposedly her bailiwick. When we ran a story complaining the city was not being very transparent in their dealings over the cell towers at Cedar Grove Park, we received a curt email stating that all future requests for information would need to be made under the California Public Records Act to the city clerk. We were also cut off from further press releases and had to rely on combing the city website for general information.

Whether it was bruised ego or a directive from the city fathers (read Jerry Amante), Woolery failed in a principle goal of any communications manager to maintain relationships with the media. Realizing we were and are an upstart blog for the city, Woolery did not seem to grasp the responsibilities of watchdog blogs such as ours and the well established The Liberal OC, where Dan Chmielewski had told me long ago that she refused to communicate with him. There is an old saying we frequently bring up: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. And, while never considered each other enemies, we often had an adversarial relationship mostly due to the nature of the blog.

Woolery’s hours were cut earlier this year in a budget move. That was verified by our sources at city hall who stated she was down to 32 hours a week. Was City Manager Jeff Parker trying to send her a message? If so, she apparently received it, loud and clear and she is joining the flock of talent leaving our city for greener pastures where visions of Jerrydom fade into the distance.

For the near future, I have been told the Facebook and Twitter feeds are being handled by Debbie Sowder from the City Manager’s office. She came out strong and has been posting to Facebook and tweeting her littler heart out all weekend from Tiller Days over at Columbus Tustin Park. We’ll see how often those tweets are coming after the newness has worn off.

For our part, we will say goodbye and good luck, Lisa. When we were talking, we had a good relationship and I appreciate you making my job easier in the beginning. Happy trails.

Ain’t No Sunshine in Tustin

We have been keeping a close eye on our neighbors to the West of us and how they will handle an ordinance proposed by the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD). As reported in the Voice of OC, SACReD sponsored an ordinance that would create a new level of transparency in government. Santa Ana politicos have long lamented the secretive world in which the Santa Ana City Council often conducts business. In past years, they have been accused of scores of Brown Act violations as well as running roughshod over small businesses and the resident artist community alike.

While much of what SACReD asked for in their proposed ordinance is the subject of state law already, we can see their issue with a city council that has declined to work interactively with the community at large. Also at issue is how willing the Orange County District Attorney has been willing to investigate and prosecute violations of the Brown Act and other regulatory laws, particularly when those being investigated claim Republican Party affiliation. However, one part of the proposal has to do with lobbyist registration which, along with the publishing of each councilmember’s calendar, would have opened up the secretive bed in which lobbyists and the politicians they attempt to influence to public scrutiny lie. Not a bad thing in anyone’s book, unless you are a lobbyist or an influenced politician.

If you have to ask why an ordinance like this is needed, it was summed up when Councilmember Carlos Bustamante asked SACReD organizer Ana Urzua what she would gain by knowing who the councilman is meeting with, she replied, “So we know we cant trust you.”

City staffers have been sent back to work on the ordinance including the changes the city council and SACReD agreed upon. That should happen in a couple of weeks. It is likely to be a watered down version of the original proposal, but it is a start.

By coincidence, or perhaps by karma, a proposal to shed more sunshine on the business of the Tustin City Council was also introduced on the same evening as Santa Ana’s proposal. In this case, the issue was raised by Councilmember Deborah Gavello, who asked her colleagues to consider agendizing discussion of a proposed policy or ordinance on lobbying. Gavello read a short piece on ethics in government to support her position for an anti-lobbying ordinance. She mentioned that the City of Irvine has a strong policy on ethics and lobbying.

In speaking with Gavello on this, she said that she is concerned about the lack of policy on ethical behavior and the possibility that some former councilmembers have -or could- come to a sitting councilmember and, because of their former position, immediately lobby for their interests. We agree this is an issue worthy of consideration by the city council and that it should also include lobbyist registration and the publishing of councilmembers’ official calendars.

John Nielsen, in an apparent move to obscure the issue, mentioned that the strategic planning coming up in October had an ethics component. He was concerned that, by agendizing an item as Gavello wanted, they would be requiring the staff to cover ground twice and addressing the issue in bit and piece fashion would not be to the benefit of the city (we’ll spare you the cost-saving remarks our fiscally responsible mayor made).

Councilmember Beckie Gomez did a great job of bringing the two issues together:

I think the gist of what Deborah is trying to do, and I could be wrong but, is maybe to encompass that with the strategic plan, that we are considering that policy, that ordinance, I’m not sure what she brought forward. I agree with you that we should not be duplicating effort but, that it would be incorporated into what we’re doing.

Surprisingly, John agreed.

Gavello, saying that she doesn’t trust “us”, said she does not see the strategic plan coming back with an ordinance. Saying that the strategic plan does consider ethics, lobbying is not mentioned at all and that is why she felt it needed to be brought forward for consideration by the council. Of course, Jerry can’t pass up any opportunity to hear himself bash Deborah so Hizzoner goes on about how the two ways to get an item agendized is either to discuss it with the mayor and city manager or to make a motion and obtain a second for a vote.

Uh, didn’t she just do that?

Fortunately, Coucilmember Gomez came to Deborah’s rescue and seconded her motion, “for purposes of discussion.”

Jerry apparently did not have enough air time. So, he decided to go on the offensive and accuse Gavello of using the lobbying issue as a personal attack on him for taking a position with an influential lobbying firm that deals with public entities. Saying that she has never been concerned about the issue before, she is only concerned now because of his employment and the fear he will come back and lobby the city. Telling her to “calm down little lady”  [you know you heard it] because there are “state laws that govern who I can lobby.”

We’ll get back to that statement later.

Thanks to Gomez, the vote was not a complete wash. Unfortunately, the Three Amigos voted together and the city attorney, when questioned by Gavello as to the rules regarding having something agendized, backpedaled into the three on the right sputtering, “It is not against the Brown Act to vote to agendize an item.” That’s not what she asked, of course, but it was enough of a sidestep by David Kendig to keep him firmly entrenched with the boys.

So, there will be no sunshine in Tustin, at least as long as the Three Amigos are holding the ball. Does that mean that Tustin does not deserve a sunshine ordinance? Aside from what Hizzoner Amante ranted about, the state law is vague on local government lobbying. In fact, there is very little written about it and there is, unless local ordinance or policy specifically prohibits it, little to prevent a former councilmember or city staffer from immediately lobbying members of the council as well as the members of boards such as the Orange County Transportation Authority, Orange County Fire Authority or the Transportation Corridor Agencies on which they may have served. It doesn’t hurt that the Orange County District Attorney shies away from investigating political violations and the vagueness of current law is often used as an excuse not to investigate.

Sunshine laws, such as the one Santa Ana is considering and Councilmember Gavello asked to be agendized for consideration by the Tustin City Council, are effective in insuring that the citizens whom the city serves are kept informed and aware of issues affecting them. This goes much further than simply posting an agenda or the financial report on the city website. It goes further than having the public information officer post pictures of city events and contests for the kids on the city’s Facebook page. It has to do with, as Gavello says, ethical behavior by those who are supposed to serve the city. It goes to trust of a city council and staff who often have a difficult time treating citizens without disdain, let alone their colleagues on the board. And yes, Jerry, it has to do with you.

Ever hear the old kids taunt, “Liar Liar, pants on fire?” Well we are surprised Jerry Amante didn’t burst into flames for his apparent untruths on the dais. Jerry says:

Let me begin by addressing the misstatement by Councilwoman Gavello, so we clear the air. All the time you have been serving on the council, councilwoman, I have been practicing law, not lobbying. I joined FSB Core  Strategies July second. I don’t lobby in the county. I don’t lobby any of the agencies I belong to. I, uh, follow the rules just as they have been written in state law. So, you have no basis to make scurrilous remarks.

Uh-huh. Well, that’s not what we hear, even from the man himself. It seems that, even though good ol’ Jer has found legitimate employment (we hear working for a woman by the way), he wasn’t always dependent upon someone else for a paycheck. Amante, indeed, has or had a law firm that practiced law. Among other things, his website lists advocacy for a number of entities including business. In fact, one web page says plainly:

GOVERNMENT RELATIONS – The firm provides strategic consultaion [sic] to clients with matters pending before government bodies or regulatory agencies. It represents clients before local, regional, state and federal governments and agencies. It specializes in the negotiation and presentation of complex matters for its clients and it frequently consults with other firms to assist them in their strategic planning for their clients. It is dedicated to the success of client projects and in zealous advocacy for them. It has particular expertise in land development, financing, construction and the like.

I don’t think you could get a more precise definition of lobbying if you looked it up in Webster’s Dictionary. And, while I won’t go as far as to say he has lobbied other Tustin councilmembers on behalf of his clients, others seem to think he has.

Somehow, we think this issue is not dead. There is that so-called “strategic plan” coming up for discussion. And, there will be a changing of the guard in November. Worse comes to worse, when Tustinites actually do get fed up with the dismal track record of their elected officials, this is a prime candidate for a ballot measure.

In the meantime, thanks largely to the Three Amigos on the city council, Tustin will remain dark.