A proposed referendum to allow Laguna Beach residents to vote on the controversial $43 million downtown village entrance project has missed the election code deadline, according to the city attorney.
Local resident Paul Merritt disclosed his intention to circulate petitions in support of a proposed ballot initiative entitled “Let Laguna Vote” at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
The proposal seeks a citywide vote over the bond-financed, 500-car parking garage and park approved in a 3-2 vote by the City Council on June 11. Mayor Kelly Boyd and Council member Toni Iseman dissented.
To protest the adoption of a municipal ordinance by ballot requires supporters collect at signatures of voters whose addresses are verified by the county registrar. But the state election code also specifies that such a petition be submitted within 30 days of the contested vote, which would have elapsed in July.
Even so, Merritt, a professional trustee and retired stockbroker, maintains the measure wasn’t signed by Mayor Boyd until July 16, which would give him another week to complete the task and submit the signed petition.
Kohn, unsure of what document Merritt cited, maintains that the council’s action was effective the day of its vote. “It’s DOA for no other reason than timing,” Kohn said of the proposed referendum.
In a confusing twist, Merritt’s proposal adopts the name of a grassroots group that he is not affiliated with.
The move surprised Rita Conn, who serves as spokeswoman for Let Laguna Vote, a grassroots group that now numbers about 100 with the aim of halting the entrance project.
She said the group’s intent is to inform city officials about the project’s physical and financial risks and to summon pressure on them to reverse course. “It’s our hope someone will come forward and make the enlightened decision that this isn’t appropriate,” she said, referring to Elizabeth Pearson, Steve Dicterow and Robert Whalen, the council members who approved the project and have the authority to call for its reconsideration.
“As far as I know, none of the council members who voted to support the Village Entrance project are considering bringing the matter back for re-consideration,” Pearson said. “I have been persuaded that the revenues generated from the village entrance and incremental rate increases at parking meters — both paid by visitors — will provide the ongoing income needed to pay the debt service on the revenue bond, as has been forecasted.”
At the direction of the City Council, Kohn on Wednesday said he was researching if the specific council action on June 11 fits the definition of legislation, which may be contested by referendum under the election code. “I think the concern is that people need to know the ground rules,” Kohn said, even though he believes Merritt’s proposal arrived after the code’s deadline and thus would not qualify for the November general election ballot.
“Kohn may want to play tennis with the election code, but we’re prepared to hit it back,” said Merritt, citing similar roadblocks encountered by south-county residents pushing for an El Toro airport initiative in 2000. “Ultimately volunteers prevailed and opponents wasted a lot of time and taxpayer money,” he said.
Merritt, who declined to identify other backers of his referendum by name, said grass-roots supporters have yet to establish a political action committee and don’t want to.
Because of the cost and scope of the entrance project, he believes the council has a “moral obligation” to put the issue before the entire town. “There are people who believe a majority will vote for it,” he said, though he personally opposes the plan.
Verna Rollinger, a former council member and city clerk, also spoke in opposition to the entrance project during Tuesday’s meeting. “When does a bad project become a good idea?” she asked, citing a previous council’s decision to drop the project over its expense and under-utilization except in summer.
Reached on Wednesday, Rollinger said she detects a groundswell of opposition to the project. “It’s growing in a way I’ve never dreamed,” she said.