Taking the Initiative

The new year started with a bang at city hall.

On Jan. 2, the City Council in a 4-1 vote decided to put a competing measure on the ballot that challenges the McKay Avenue Open Space initiative previously qualified by residents wanting to zone 3.65 acres of federal property near Crab Cove as open space. The Council also decided to hold a special election on both measures in April, which will cost taxpayers between $580,000 and $730,000. Waiting for the November 2020 general election would have cost just $25,000.

The property contains a few buildings that had previously served the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A nonprofit entity wants to acquire the property for a senior assisted-living facility and supportive services for homeless individuals. The federal government has already agreed to hand over the property to the nonprofit for free. The city’s ballot measure seeks to uphold the Council’s support for the private care facility.

It’s the third time in recent history that the city has tried to undercut a citizens’ effort by placing its own competing measure on the ballot. This is disturbing. If the Council does not like a citizens’ measure, they should simply lend their names to the opposition campaign and contribute their personal money to fight it.

Citizen ballot initiatives came about during the Progressive Era in the early 20th century as a check on the power structure. In California, city councils have the opportunity to either approve a proposed initiative or put it to a vote. If every initiative measure that a council does not like is undermined by a council-approved alternative, it defeats the whole purpose of initiatives.

It does not matter that I support the homeless care facility. Populist measures should not be undermined by alternate council measures, funded with public money, supposedly for the “public good” or for “informational purposes.” That is what campaigns are for. That is when the pros and cons, nonsense and truth are presented. 

For instance, on Jan. 9, a week after the Council meeting, it was revealed that two owners of multifamily properties near McKay Avenue paid for some of the signature gathering. While paid signature gathering should not be allowed, in the era of Citizens United, I don’t know if it can be prohibited.

Some argue having both measures on the ballot offers more choices and, therefore, is more democratic. But rather than a simple up or down vote on a single measure, the city is asking people to vote yes on one measure and no on the other, making the election unnecessarily more complicated, not more democratic.

More than 6,000 registered voters willingly signed a petition to place the open space initiative on the ballot. Those voters were not paid to sign it. Now four people on the City Council have decided to call an expensive special election, which the open-space proponents do not want, on both measures in three months when voter turnout will be lower than in a general election.

Whether placing competing city measures on the ballot is underhanded or fair play, I hope this tactic against citizen initiatives does not become a trend.