Over the next few days, outside a Target or grocery story, a signature-gatherer might ask you if you want to keep the Chargers in San Diego.

Sign on the dotted line if your answer is yes.

It won’t be just an exuberant fan trying to do his part. This worker will be getting paid $2 per signature.

But his petition won’t go toward an eventual referendum or ballot measure. Signing it means nothing more than that you want the Chargers to stay in San Diego. No matter how many people sign it, it has no actual significance beyond a gesture of how many people signed it. It’s an odd investment.

It is not an investment by the Chargers, whose ownership is pushing for a publicly funded stadium.

No, Kilroy Realty is paying for it.

Kilroy is the developer that just won approval of the controversial One Paseo development in Carmel Valley. Opponents of One Paseo just started a petition of their own with their own paid signature gatherers. That petition is to provoke an actual referendum on Kilroy’s project. If it gathers enough signatures, it will force the City Council to put the One Paseo project up for a vote or rescind its approval of the project.

Kilroy does not want that.

So Kilroy came up with the meaningless Chargers petition to both try to block the referendum effort and lure professional signature-gatherers to a different job outside of San Diego. Kilroy’s petition, after all, is only for residents outside San Diego city limits.

Kilroy wants to make it as hard as possible for its opponents.

“We make no apologies about hiring area signature-gatherers to pursue a productive effort by helping determine the strength of public support countywide for keeping the Chargers in the region. It will help inform decision-makers and enable those folks who can’t make it to public meetings to participate in the conversation,” said a statement sent to me by Kilroy’s spokeswoman, Rachel Laing.

It appears to be an innovation in the street battles that have come to define all of San Diego’s biggest, most controversial political decisions. The signature-gathering process was always a last resort. But now, signature gatherers – and more importantly, the people who can pay them – have become their own branch of San Diego government. If the City Council passes a law someone doesn’t like, they can force it to a referendum by gathering signatures from 5 percent of the registered voters in the city.

This latest clever move also opened up a window into the world of professional signature-gathering as one of its members, Arenza Thigpen Jr., worked to surface what was going on. He’s a labor organizer of sorts for the International League of Signature Gatherers, and he was suspicious of the petition to gather signatures from Charger fans.

At first, Thigpen alerted his network. It was an attractive job. But it became clear, he said, that working on it would put signature-gatherers directly in conflict with one of the giants of the signature-gathering world, Progressive Campaigns Inc. a firm headed by Angelo Paparella.

Paparella’s team was doing the petition to force One Paseo to a vote. And Paparella was not allowing anyone who signed a contract to work for him to also collect signatures for the Chargers petition. Right now, he’s paying $3 per signature.

I called Paparella. Was the effort to lure his workers out of the city having an effect on the referendum push against One Paseo?

“Yes,” he said. “Circulators are being pulled to outlying areas so they’re not aiding our effort. Is it going to stop us from qualifying the referendum? No. So far, the response from the public has been very positive.”

Ken Farinsky, one of the co-founders of What Price Main Street, the group that lobbied hard against One Paseo, said the goal was to allow voters across the city to have a say. And Kilroy was working to stop it.

“They’re trying to outwit the desires of the city,” he said.

But Kilroy, in its statement, pointed out that the Council representing the whole city passed One Paseo with a 7-2 super-majority. It pointed to the major dollars its rival, the owner of a nearby shopping center, dumped into the campaign opposing it.

“Like the $1.5 million lobbying effort against One Paseo, this enterprise is being funded by an Orange County corporation seeking to protect its narrow business interests,” said the Kilroy statement.

That’s what makes this particular signature-gathering street battle so much different than many of the others: Both sides have money and are deploying it.

Thigpen said signature-gatherers were facing a tough choice.

“If they attempt to cross over, they will be blackballed from parts of the system,” he said. On the one hand, they could have an easy time with the Chargers petition, but they might get in the way of a major employer.

Paparella said he would not blacklist someone who worked against his firm. He said he hopes they would decide against joining an obvious blocking campaign.

“For the most part, petitioners believe in the process. They believe people have the right to vote on issues. A blocking campaign goes directly against that, and is bad for the initiative process,” he said.

For now, the business of the initiative process is booming.

Clarification: I mistakenly typed “inside” city limits instead of “outside” city limits to describe Kilroy’s petition effort. Kilroy’s Chargers petition is meant to lure signature gatherers to areas outside the city so they don’t work on the referendum against One Paseo.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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