Are you and your neighbors fed up with the policies of your local officials? For over 100 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 percent 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 percent 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.