“How best can we arm the people to protect themselves?” Hiram Johnson, one politician who actually deserved to call himself a “Progressive,” asked when he was inaugurated as governor of California in 1911.
His answer: “[W]hile I do not by any means believe the initiative, the referendum, and the recall are the panacea for all our political ills, yet they do give to the electorate the power of action when desired, and they do place in the hands of the people the means by which they may protect themselves.”
The continuing contretemps over the initiative to re-zone as open space the McKay Avenue property formerly used for federal offices prompted us to check out how the mechanisms devised by Johnson and other Progressives had worked locally in the recent past. So, today, a history lesson.
The initiative (and referendum) process begins with filing a notice of intent to circulate a petition. City Clerk Lara Weisiger was kind enough to pull together for us the data on the notices filed since 2000, and we’ll present it below. But, first, the big picture:
- Only five local initiatives have been submitted to Alameda voters since 2000.
- Of those five, two passed and three were defeated.
- Both of the initiatives that passed involved efforts to acquire or protect public parks: the initiative to re-zone the Beltline Railroad property – where the Jean Sweeney Open Space Park now is located – as open space in 2002, and the initiative to amend the City Charter to prohibit the sale of parkland – like the Mif Albright golf course – without a popular vote in 2012.
- In addition, another park-related initiative – to re-zone the Neptune Point property as open space – qualified for the ballot in 2014. Council then decided to obviate the need to send the initiative to the voters by adopting it as an ordinance.
- Rent control initiatives have not fared so well at the polls, regardless of which group – tenants or landlords – were pushing them. Measure M1, the initiative sponsored by the Alameda Renters Coalition to limit annual rent increases to a fixed percentage and to prohibit no-cause evictions, failed in 2016 with only 34.07% in favor. Measure K, the landlord-sponsored initiative to incorporate the rent stabilization ordinance adopted by Council into the Charter, failed in 2018 with only 39.69% in favor.
- The one successful rent-related initiative was the petition to call a referendum to repeal the “just cause” ordinance passed by Council in June 2017. After the initiative qualified for the ballot, the Council that had enacted the ordinance turned around and repealed it three months later.
Here’s a chart based on the data supplied by Ms. Weisiger and our own follow-up research:
What this data portends for the open-space initiative is unclear. As the title given the initiative suggests, it is being sold as a measure to protect “open space,” and the data shows that voters have supported similarly marketed measures in the past. But before concluding that history favors the current initiative, consider the parties whom the previous successful measures were designed to protect parks against: a railroad (the initiative to re-zone the Beltline property) and real-estate developers (the initiative to amend the charter to prohibit the sale of parkland without a popular vote and the initiative to re-zone Neptune Point).
Railroads, of course, are a traditional target of popular antipathy – as Hiram Johnson himself knew well. And developers don’t inspire a lot of love among the public, either, especially those who are known to cultivate elected officials to get them to grease the skids for their profit-seeking projects.
Whatever one may think of the Alameda Point Collaborative, it ain’t the Alameda Beltline Railroad. And Doug Biggs ain’t no Ron Cowan or Tim Lewis.
A column by Irene Dieter, criticizing Council’s decision to place its own ballot measure alongside the open-space initiative, prompted us to look into an issue that isn’t reflected in the chart: how our local politicians have responded to citizen-sponsored initiatives. What we found was that a practice that may have been prudent at the outset has devolved into an exercise in political gamesmanship.
When Council put Measure E, the Beltline initiative, on the ballot in 2002, it accompanied it with another measure that would suspend the effective date of the re-zoning until the voters had approved new or increased taxes, fees, or assessments to pay any judgment for inverse condemnation. At the time this wasn’t just a theoretical possibility: the railroad already had sued the City seeking compensation for an alleged “taking” of its property, and an Alameda Superior Court judge had granted partial summary judgment in the railroad’s favor. The City’s appeal was pending, but if it lost the case, Alameda taxpayers faced the prospect of a multi-million-dollar liability.
Both the initiative and the “companion” measure passed, with 53.4 percent and 52.1 per cent of the vote, respectively, and the story had a happy ending: the appellate court reversed the summary judgment, and, thereafter, the trial court ruled that the City had the right to buy the property at 1924 prices and the appellate court affirmed.
Council decided to take a facially similar tack when the initiative for re-zoning Neptune Point qualified for the ballot in 2014. At Council’s direction, staff drafted what they called a “fiscal responsibility” measure to submit to the voters along with the initiative. The measure was no model of draftsmanship, but it essentially treated as a certainty that the City would be sued for inverse condemnation if the initiative passed. In that event, the measure raised the specter of Council having to cut services to pay defense costs and to impose new taxes to pay the judgment.
With a straight face, the politicians sought to sell the “companion” measure as a prophylactic. “We’re trying to give the residents what they want without potentially blowing the budget,” Mayor Marie Gilmore declaimed. By contrast, supporters of the initiative condemned the measure as a “scare tactic” based on the faulty premise that litigation was inevitable and an adverse result was probable. (We agreed with them.) Ultimately, Council passed a watered-down version of the “fiscal responsibility” measure at the same time it decided to enact the initiative as an ordinance. And no one sued.
After the “companion” measure the politicians added the “competing” measure to their arsenal. This tactic emerged after the rent-control initiative sponsored by the Alameda Renters’ Coalition qualified for the ballot in 2016. Unwilling to risk the renters’ wrath, Council – which had just determined not to limit rent increases to a fixed percentage or to prohibit no-cause evictions – voted against submitting ballot arguments in opposition to the initiative, which contained both of those provisions. Instead, it decided to offer its own ballot measure on the rent-control issue, asking the voters to “confirm” the rent stabilization ordinance it had just adopted. By confirming the ordinance, the ballot argument signed by Council members Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft and Jim Oddie stated, voters would “save millions of dollars that can be used to fund police, fire, ambulance response, and other essential city services.” (emphasis in original).
There were some who thought the tactic of offering a “competing” measure might lead to voter confusion. (Again, we plead guilty.) But it did have the advantage, for those skeptical of “just cause” requirements, of creating a second way to forestall them: even if the renters’ initiative (Measure M1) passed, it would not trump the Council-sponsored measure (Measure L1) – which didn’t impose those requirements – if the latter got more votes. As it turned out, Measure M1 lost and Measure L1 won, but the voters’ “confirmation” of the rent-stabilization ordinance proved to be ephemeral, as the newly elected Council – with Council members Ashcraft and Oddie in the vanguard – amended the law to insert a just-cause provision anyway.
For the open-space initiative, staff gave Council the opportunity to employ both prior stratagems. There was a “companion” – aka “fiscal responsibility” – measure that would take effect if the initiative passed and an inverse-condemnation suit was filed. There was also a “competing” measure that would retain the existing zoning if it got more votes than the initiative itself did. At its January 3 meeting, Council decided to put the latter and not the former on the ballot. Councilwoman Malia Vella noted the potential for voter confusion created by a “competing” measure, but she joined the majority in agreeing to submit it to the electorate anyway. So now Alamedans who go by the ballot titles will get to choose on April 9 whether they want to increase “open space” or endorse a “caring Alameda.” Or both. Or neither.
We refer our readers to Ms. Dieter’s piece for a reasoned critique of resorting to “companion” and “competing” measures as a way to derail initiatives the Council majority doesn’t like. (N.B.: She’s able to make her case without calling advocates on either side of the issue a single name!) But we can’t end without offering one last tidbit from our research.
Back in 2008, Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant was waging a war to rein in the public-safety spending that threatened to put the general-fund budget into the red. Her efforts included commissioning a report from an independent expert showing that the Alameda fire department could do its job with far fewer sworn personnel – i.e., union members – than the City was then paying salaries and benefits to. Naturally, this outraged the Alameda firefighters’ union, which responded by crafting an initiative to enshrine the staffing levels deemed necessary by the union – 109 sworn personnel – into the Charter (where they couldn’t be reduced, regardless of circumstances, without a subsequent Charter amendment).
As the chart shows, this initiative qualified for the ballot in 2009. But when it came time to decide when the measure would go to the voters, Council rejected the pleas by IAFF Local 689 leaders Domenick Weaver and Jeff DelBono to put it on the November 2009 ballot but instead decided to defer the vote until the November 2011 election, some two years hence. Delay, they say, is the worst form of denial, and the union later “withdrew” the initiative.
The experience appears to have taught the firefighters’ union a lesson: Its goal didn’t change – but its tactics did. After the debacle with the initiative, the IAFF Local 689 leaders focused their efforts on finding and promoting candidates for mayor and Council who would carry water for the union. In 2010, they backed a slate – Ms. Gilmore for mayor and Rob Bonta and Lena Tam for Council– whose first act after taking office was to can the union’s nemesis, Interim City Manager Gallant. More recently, the union has bestowed its blessings – and financial support – on first-time candidates whom it can count on like Mr. Oddie and Ms. Vella. And guess what? Since 2010, there have been no reductions in fire department staffing, and, indeed, the head count authorized by Council has gone up. And so have salaries – twice.
So maybe the message to interest groups who want to see action taken on their agenda is to forget about pursuing the initiative process – RIP, Hiram – and instead to focus on putting pliable politicians into office. It seems to work for the firefighters.
Hiram Johnson first inaugural address: hiram johnson’s first inaugural address
Beltline initiative: smart voter, measure d_ changing requirements for sales or disposals of city parks (2012); smart voter, measure d_ effective date of rezoning (measure e) (2002); 2000-10-02 alameda beltline railroad yard open space initiative
Fire staffing initiative: 2008-12-22 notice of intent; 2009-08-03 staff reports re fire staffing initiative
Repeal referendum: referendum petition
Open-space initiative: 2019-01-02 ex. 1 to staff report – elections code report