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What if I told you that no matter what city government did, what laws the City Council passed and the mayor signed, a handful of the wealthiest people in town could pay to overrule it?
This is precisely what happens over and over again in San Diego’s flawed referendum process.
The purpose of referendums is to protect local residents from legislative overreach. It was originally designed to give members of the minority a tool to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, the process has been distorted by wealthy special interests using this tool to silence these voices. The result has been greater potential profit for them at the expense of affordable housing, healthy communities and higher wages for tens of thousands of San Diego residents.
In the past two years, well-funded corporate interests have used the referendum process to successfully block three City Council decisions that were developed through extensive community input: an update to the Barrio Logan community plan, an affordable housing fee and most recently, an ordinance to increase to the city’s minimum wage. What’s worse is that many of the funders of these campaigns came from outside San Diego, and even outside California.
The economically disadvantaged and racially diverse Barrio Logan neighborhood is plagued by numerous health and safety hazards. Thousands of residents worked for four years to find a compromise that was ultimately approved by City Council. That compromise would have improved the conditions of the community, reduced pollution, mitigated asthma and updated the community plan to be more in line with the city’s own general plan.
Sadly, the community’s process was invalidated when the shipbuilding industry paired with the local Chamber of Commerce to raise more than $400,000 to gather enough signatures and repeal the plan. There was documented footage of signature-gatherers lying and misleading the public, and a local judge confirmed the public had been deceived by signature-gatherers. Still, the signatures were counted. Ultimately, the special interests opposing the Barrio Logan plan spent more than $1.7 million to win their referendum campaign, outspending the local community 17-to-1, dismissing four years of work and community involvement and leaving the outdated industrial zoning in place.
Residents of the Barrio Logan neighborhood were then overruled by San Diego voters at large, who were more easily influenced by special interests than the needs of their neighbors. This is a clear example of money distorting the democratic process at the expense of residents who will have to live with the devastating effects.
The current referendum process lacks any sort of transparency or accountability until after the signatures have been counted. This is why Councilman Todd Gloria’s proposal makes sense for San Diego. Gloria’s accountability clause will strengthen a voter’s ability to make informed decisions. Every voter in every community deserves the right to understand the full impact of his or her signature.
The referendum process is a time-honored tradition in direct democracy, and is meant to elevate the people’s priorities. But wealthy special interests have used it to subvert the will of the people, and drown out the voices of everyday San Diegans.
Let’s restore the referendum process by requiring timely disclosure of where the money is coming from, reining in the unbridled power of signature-gatherers to distort the facts and spread false information, and enforcing penalties for anyone who breaks the rules at the expense of the community.
Leila Pedersen is state program manager for California Common Cause. Pedersen’s note has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.