Signature gathering in support of an elected city attorney is challenging, but steady, according to supporters of the potential ballot initiative.
Proponents of the City Attorney Accountability Initiative said they have been working in “fits and starts” to gather the signatures necessary to qualify their proposal for a November election. The City Clerk has suggested all signatures for all initiatives should be at her office by May 20 in order to facilitate the multi-step approval process.
All initiatives start at City Hall.
First the proponents present a Notice of Intent to Circulate a petition with the ballot language to the City Clerk’s Office requesting a Ballot Title & Summary from the City Attorney’s office. The City Attorney has 15 days to provide and return the Ballot Title and Summary. From there, proponents publish a notice of intention and the Ballot Title and Summary in a newspaper and within 10 days after the date of publication, proponents file a proof of publication with the Clerk’s Office. Authors must then gather signatures equal to 10 percent of registered voters or about 6,500 signatures in Santa Monica. Those signatures must be submitted within 180 days from the receipt of the ballot title and summary to the City Clerk who has up to 30 business days to verify the signatures. If enough signatures are gathered, the initiative must then be put before City Council who can adopt the ordinance, schedule it for the next municipal election or request staff prepare a study on the topic. That study can take up to 30 days and then return to Council a second time to be adopted or placed on the ballot. If council chooses to send the item to voters, the County Board of Supervisors must then approve the ballot measure to be placed on the next County election.
Supporters have 180 days to gather enough signatures but depending on when they filed with the Clerk’s office, taking all 180 days could push them past the next available election. Locally, two initiatives were submitted in February but the approval process to qualify for November shortens their signature window.
In order to complete the process in time to qualify for the November election, the Santa Monica City Clerk is recommending all signatures be submitted to City Hall by May 20.
“Our plan is to be ready on that day in a successful manner,” said Andrew Nasatir, Principal Officer of Santa Monicans for Democracy. The group was formed in January for the express purpose of supporting the City Attorney Accountability Initiative. As written, the rule would amend the city charter to require an elected City Attorney.
Nasatir said their strategy has been twofold. In addition to traditional solicitation of potential voters in public places, supporters have tried to target registered voters by direct solicitation at their homes. He said direct solicitation generates signatures that are more likely to be qualified but it takes more effort.
“Santa Monica has a very high percentage of noncitizens, that’s always a challenge for signature gathers in the city of Santa Monica,” he said. “We have done both models, one is a bit more expensive than the other.”
Nasatir said there has been a range of responses to their attempts. He said some residents are uninterested in local politics and not receptive to the petition. Others don’t know about this specific issue but are willing to listen. A third group that he described as smaller but with first hand experience in local politics, has been the most receptive.
“People in the know in Santa Monica are our most excited supporters,” he said. “For those Santa Monica residents who are familiar with the functioning of the city, for that segment of the population, there’s very strong support.”
Examination of the City Attorney’s office has risen to the forefront recently with the release of an ethics investigation. Attorney John Heuston was hired by City Hall to examine the firing of Elizabeth Riel and the City Attorney’s assertion that her office is unable to enforce the city’s anti-corruption laws due to conflict of interest concerns. The report concludes enforcement of what is known as the Oaks Initiative is possible via the City Attorney’s Criminal Division or through a special prosecutor.
Supporters of the measure said the conclusion lends credibility to their cause.
Craig Miller, AIDS Walk Los Angeles founder and 32-year Santa Monica resident, organized the ballot measure. Miller said his interest in local politics was sparked by his involvement with the Big Blue Bus advertising policy and his belief that Santa Monica’s attorney has not served the city appropriately.
He said the recently released ethics report and its conclusion that the City Attorney’s office can prosecute violations of the city’s anti-corruption laws is motivating.
“The effort is ongoing and picking up steam in light of the release of the study,” he said.
The second ballot initiative filed this year is the Land Use Voter Empowerment Measure. Supporters have been gathering signatures for the past few weeks and intend to submit qualifying petitions by the May deadline.