The Los Angeles city clerk is counting and verifying signatures in a petition filed by AIDS Healthcare Foundation to require the city to put an initiative on the June 5 ballot. The subject? Whether to adopt a new law to require performers in sexually explicit films to use condoms. If it qualifies, it would be the first initiative on the Los Angeles ballot since 1993.
Los Angeles is one of the first cities to adopt the voter initiative - city voters amended their charter in 1903 to permit the direct democracy reforms of initiative, referendum and recall that went statewide in California in 1911. Now the state has voter initiatives almost every election. But Los Angeles hasn't had one since the post-1992 riot era when then-mayoral candidate Richard Riordan circulated petitions to impose term limits on city elected officials. And by the way, contrary to popular belief, it was defeated. More on that below.
Sure, Los Angeles has a lot of ballot measures, year after year, but they are put to voters not by petition or popular uprising but by the City Council. Even items that seem like they arose from voter revolts are generally recrafted by the council. So, for example, this year's popular measure to impose an Office of Public Accountability and a ratepayer advocate on the Department of Water and Power was a City Council invention, put in place, arguably, for the council to capture for itself, and ultimately to control, ratepayer anger over rate hikes. The measure to increase library funding also sounded like a voter demand but was put on the ballot by the very same City Council that voted to decrease library funding the previous budget year. The move allowed the council to say, "Yes, we're mad too! Who did this to us?" instead of "We're sorry."
By the way, this is essentially how one model of reform for state initiatives would work. Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat representing Silver Lake, has a bill (ACA 12) that would ask voters to allow the Legislature to hold hearings on a proposed initiative, offer alternatives or adjustments, and if the supposedly improved version is rejected by proponents, put it on the ballot alongside the grass-roots initiative in its original form. Los Angeles political culture has accomplished the same thing informally.
That's good, right? Any problems in the people's proposed initiative could be quickly identified by experts, be discussed at hearings, amended by the council and offered up in a better form. Or it's bad because the council can co-opt the entire process. Take your pick.
The council, of course, hated the idea of term limits in 1993, but sprung into action with its own term limits measure after Riordan's petition qualified for the ballot. The council's version was slightly kinder to incumbents -- it had their two limited terms begin when members currently in the middle of a term were next elected. Riordan's would have begun the limits retrospectively, leaving midyear incumbents only a term and a half to complete. Negotiations failed, both measures went on the ballot, and Los Angeles voters passed both -- but the council's version got more votes than Riordan's and prevailed.
Of course, that's not the end of the story. The council in 2006 put its own measure on the ballot to loosen term limits, to give themselves three terms instead of two. It was couched in campaign mailers as an imposition of term limits rather than a liberalization, and it was accompanied by various lobbyist crackdowns which were, arguably, actually a loosening of rules on lobbyists. Voters fell, or rather, opted, for it.
The last successful initiatives may have been two from the later 1980s. Proposition U in 1986 was a slow-growth measure backed by then-Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude but rejected as an ordinance by a majority of their council colleagues. The councilmen circulated petitions, got their signatures, put it on the ballot and won. The measure cut in half the building rights on most commercial property in the city.
In 1988, Yaroslavsky and Braude returned with an initiative to block Occidental Petroleum from drilling off Pacific Palisades. It won. Occidental's counter-initiative was defeated.
Why are there so few city initiatives? It's a lot of work, and it's expensive, to qualify one for the ballot. Proponents must gather enough valid signatures of registered Los Angeles voters to equal 15% or more of the number of voters who voted for mayor in the previous election. Most state petitions fail, but those that succeed do so in part because the stakes are high enough to attract big money. In Los Angeles that happens far less often.
But we have seen quasi-successful referendum petitions in Los Angeles in the last decade-plus. Unlike an initiative, a referendum -- at least as the term is generally used in California -- is a petitioned ballot measure in which voters are asked whether to keep or overturn a law adopted by the City Council.
In 1999, the council awarded, without bid, a contract extension to the Nederlander family to continue operating the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park. House of Blues wanted the contract, but instead of (or in addition to) suing, it gathered signatures. When the petition qualified, the council saw the error of its ways and agreed to discuss a bidding process. In the end, the two companies agreed on a joint operations deal and the referendum was dropped.
In 2003, the council adopted a ban on lap dancing. The lap dance, uh, industry gathered a sufficient number of valid signatures to suspend the law pending a public vote. That was enough for the council, which again backed down and negotiated an ordinance more palatable to the adult club operators.
So we do voter petitions in Los Angeles, but they rarely get to the ballot.
Currently, the Los Angeles city attorney is trying to block the AIDS Healthcare Foundation measure from going on the June ballot, and some members of the City Council are discussing whether to merely adopt the condom mandate into law. At some point the parties are likely to try talking the whole thing out. That's the L.A. way. Everything's a negotiation.
Condoms in porn? What should we do?
-- Robert Greene
Photo: Andrea Bloom