Politicians don’t like to lose.
So it’s understandable that Councilman Todd Gloria has taken aim at the referendum process that he believes hampered his ability to pass his agenda as president over a legislative super-majority on City Council.
It would be a mistake to simply dismiss Gloria’s reform proposal as a political temper tantrum, given the serious ramifications of what he is proposing. The referendum process in California has a rich 100-year history rooted in the progressive movement of the early 1900s, and tampering with it should not be handled lightly.
The referendum process exists to protect the rights of the minority, those outnumbered on a legislative body. It is a modest but important check on legislative power.
Here’s how referendums work: When the city passes a new law, an individual or group may petition to have that law placed on the ballot for a vote of the people in the next regular election.
In order for the initiative to quality for the ballot, petitioners must gather signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in the city within 30 days. This number is currently 33,224 in San Diego.
The key point is that a referendum does not guarantee any outcome, but simply puts the issue to a vote of the people. Despite this uncertainty, those out of power who feel unjustly squeezed by a government that does not listen to them occasionally resort to the process.
Medical marijuana advocates, neighborhood groups, business associations and countless others have all resorted to the referendum. Interestingly, in 2011 when the process was used to repeal restrictions on medical marijuana dispensaries, we didn’t hear these concerns from Gloria.
The question Gloria raises can be boiled down to this: How difficult should the referendum process be?
To enlighten our thinking, Gloria asks us on Twitter to consider this hypothetical: “Could a worker earning $9 per hour use the referendum process to raise the minimum wage?”
Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that a referendum is used to repeal a law, not write a new one. Gloria raises a valid point: The referendum process has become costly and burdensome. One must be extremely motivated and well organized to gather 33,224 signatures in 30 days.
Gloria’s solution to this problem? Make them gather even more signatures, restrict them from raising money, limit how they describe the petition and add additional paperwork to the process.
How is this proposal supposed to help Gloria’s hypothetical worker get her referendum to the ballot? It’s not.
Gloria’s proposal will do absolutely nothing to help grassroots San Diegans utilize the tools of direct democracy. In fact, it’s intended to make the process so difficult and cumbersome that no one will ever have the means to challenge the Council majority again.
If our concern is that the referendum has become inaccessible to grassroots groups, then the answer is simple: Make the petition process cheaper and easier, not more costly and cumbersome.
It would be more honest for Gloria to just say what he would really like to do: eliminate the referendum process altogether. Perhaps his communications strategy has taken a page from former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who said last year, “As a Democrat, you do not come out in favor of doing away with direct-democracy rights.”
Regardless of whether the debate is about eliminating the referendum or raising the hurdle even higher, the issue still comes down to the same question that was asked over 100 years ago: Should the minority have a way to seek redress through a vote of the people?
Like Californians of all political stripes for the last century, my answer is still yes.
Ryan Clumpner is executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County. Clumpner’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.