In just 30 days, the Oak to Ninth Referendum Committee collected the signatures of 25,068 Oakland residents who want a chance to vote on a massive development project that would bring 31,000 new homes to the Oakland waterfront. But the matter may never be on the ballot: on Sept. 6, Oakland City Attorney John Russo directed the city clerk to invalidate the petition because it didn't conform to the requirements of state election law.
It's likely that from a legal standpoint Russo's determination is correct. Nevertheless, the decision exposes flaws in California's election system that the state legislature should fix. In the shorter term, the Oakland City Council ought to recognize that there's strong public sentiment for a referendum on the project and put Oak to Ninth before the voters.
It's tough to force a referendum vote on an act of local government: you need to gather a significant number of signatures within 30 days of the passage of the bill — and there are no second chances. If the petition doesn't meet every possible legal standard — and the standards are high, the rules complex — then the referendum is dead forever.
Erica Harrold, communications director for Russo's office, told us she sympathized with the plight of Oak to Ninth foes and acknowledged that the current rules applying to referendum petitions are "draconian." Russo, she said, is seeking reforms to the current system, including establishment of a new rule that would not start the 30-day period until the city provides a certified final version of an ordinance to petition sponsors. That was a key issue in this conflict: the Oak to Ninth Referendum Committee apparently had to rush to gather signatures to meet the deadline and for various reasons did not submit the version of the ordinance that Russo and the City Council consider the final draft (additionally, the committee did not include certain attachments to the ordinance that the City Attorney's Office says were required).
The legislature should follow Russo's suggestion and change the deadlines. It should also consider allowing petition sponsors to cure unintentional defects in their petitions.
State legislative reform can't come quickly enough to remedy the current situation involving the Oak to Ninth petition. But the City Council can still act: it's well within the authority of local officials to simply acknowledge the public interest in (and demand for) a citywide vote on a project that will change Oakland forever — and place the entire matter on next June's ballot.
There's no rush to break ground here — in fact, we've long argued that the project shouldn't have final approval until the incoming mayor, Ron Dellums (who has expressed real concerns with the deal), takes office. Legal technicalities aside, the bottom line is simple: Oakland residents deserve a chance to be heard on Oak to Ninth. SFBG
PS Stop the presses: on Sept. 19, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera ruled that petitions demanding a vote on the redevelopment plan for Bayview–Hunters Point were invalid — on a legal technicality similar to the one that undermined the Oakland petitions. Again, Herrera may well be legally correct (and we're under no illusions here — the referendum was financed in part by a private housing developer) — but when in doubt, the desire of the voters to weigh in on an issue should be paramount. The supervisors should determine whether it's possible to put this plan on the ballot anyway.