Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, September 2, 2010


Page 11



Petchner Helps Draft Provisions on Initiative, Referendum, Recall




William C. Petchner was a young attorney dedicated to the political reform movement in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He’ll enter the story in a moment.

As of 1900, three efforts to revamp the Los Angeles City Charter had failed. Lewis Groff, previously profiled here, had been on the Board of Freeholders that drafted a proposed charter that was rebuffed by voters in 1898…with the Herald grumbling in an editorial on Dec. 6, the day after the election, that “[i]t will probably be a long time before fifteen of our ablest citizens will again consent to give so much thought, labor and time to drafting a charter….”

To the contrary, so loud was the call for reform that a new Board of Freeholders was constituted on July 17, 1900.

Note: that’s a board of freeholders, not freeloaders; the later sort of governmental body was later to be formed in the City of Bell.

The man who was spearheading the effort to create the right of initiative and referendum was Dr. John R. Haynes, a physician. The 1930 book “The Recall of Public Officers” by Frederick L. Bird and Frances M. Ryan says that Haynes “promoted the election of a progressive president of the board who was willing to place him on the committee on legislation and let him select the other two members.”

The chair was Nathaniel P. Conrey, then a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, later a presiding justice of the Court of Appeal, then a justice of the state Supreme Court.

Haynes got the nod to draft a provision relating to the initiative and referendum. The book recites:

“With the aid of two friends, Mr. C. W. [sic] Petchner, a lawyer with ‘reform ideas,’ and a Mr. W. H. Stuart, Dr. Haynes drafted the measures and included a recall provision in the hope that it might be slipped through with the others. In so far as the initiative and referendum were concerned the task was not difficult, as much had been written regarding them and a few cities had them in use. With regard to the recall, however, the situation was different. They had never heard of its existence in Switzerland; Populist and Socialist Labor party platforms merely mentioned it; and references in current books and writings were casual and few. So it was necessary for them to work out an entirely original recall provision.”

Tom Sitton, in his 1992 book, “John Randolph Haynes, California Progressive,” points out that Petchner and Stuart were “both local lawyers and members of the Social Reform Union and similar organizations of the late 1890s” and that these “two friends (and patients)” of Haynes “performed most of the legal work in composing the drafts of the initiative and referendum.” He says that “Stuart and Petchner then took Haynes’s ideas and drafted a recall provision for the charter” which, in slightly modified form was approved by the board.

Favorable newspaper coverage and commentary produced popular support of the new concept.

However, the charter drafted by that board did not go on the ballot in 1900. The California Supreme Court on Oct. 17, 1900, declared, in a per curiam opinion, that “a freeholders’ charter”—the existing charter, approved by voters in 1889 and adopted by the Legislature—“can be changed only by amendments submitted by the legislative authority of the city,” that is, the City Council. Thus, the present Board of Freeholders, like the three previous ones seeking to change the 1889 charter, had been illegally constituted, under that opinion.

(A subsequent expanded opinion, issued Dec. 29, 1900, drew a single dissent.)

Two years later, a charter revision commission submitted to the City Council the proposals drafted two years earlier, with few changes, and the council placed on the ballot three issues: whether to adopt the initiative and referendum, civil service reform, and recall.

With respect to the initiative and referendum and the recall, a Nov. 8, 1902, Los Angeles Times editorial says:

“The proposed amendments are designed, as is evident, to give the people more direct control in the management of municipal government. Though in some degree experimental, they appear to be well calculated to impose a wholesome check upon the power of municipal representatives to enact laws distasteful to the people. Their plain purpose is to secure the enactment of laws desired by the people and to remove offending officials from office.”

On Dec. 1, 1902, all three measures passed. The City of Los Angeles in 1903, after approval of the provisions by the Legislature, became the first political entity in the United States to vest in the electorate the power to recall elected officials.

Haynes is known as the “father of the recall.” Perhaps Petchner might be thought of as an uncle.


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