Council Blocked Initiative From Going on 2020 Ballot by Purporting to Adopt It As an Ordinance—Though Measure Required Voter Approval—With Ordinance Then Overridden by City-Sponsored Ballot Measure
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday thwarted what appeared to be political chicanery on the part of the Oxnard City Council in adopting as an ordinance a proposed initiative providing for strict term limits, thus keeping the measure off the March 3, 2020 ballot, with that ordinance then overridden when voters approving the city’s own initiative with a more liberal provision on term limits.
Ordinarily, under Elections Code §9215(a), a city council does have the option of adopting a proposed initiative, without alteration, thereby avoiding presentation of a proposition to voters, Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert of Div. Six said. But Gilbert pointed to two reasons why the Oxnard City Council did not have that prerogative in the present instance.
The initiative promoted by Oxnard businessman Aaron Starr would have increased a mayor’s term from two years to four years, which could only be accomplished by a vote of the people, the jurist said, adding that the machinations denied the electorate its right to decide for itself what the term limits are to be.
He explained that a two-year term for the mayor was approved by voters in 1973 and, under Elections Code §9217, a “city ordinance adopted by the voters may be repealed or amended only by a vote of the people.”
The city argued that §9217 was not placed on the ballot through initiative but by action of the City Council, insisting that the statute only applies to voter-approved initiatives. Rejecting the contention, Gilbert said:
“It is true that section 9217 is found in the part of the Elections Code governing initiatives and it certainly applies to initiatives. The City overlooks that the plain language of section 9217 is not limited to adoption by the voters through the initiative process. It simply governs ordinances ‘adopted by the voters.’ That applies to all such ordinances, including the 1973 ordinance.”
“Had the Legislature in enacting section 9217 intended to distinguish between ordinances adopted by the voters through the initiative process and ordinances adopted by the voters following some other process, it would have said so. It did not. In fact, the City fails to suggest any reason why the Legislature would make such a distinction.
“The City’s action in adopting Starr’s initiative ordinance could not have amended the 1973 ordinance. Only a vote by the people could accomplish this. Section 9215 requires the City to place Starr’s initiative on the ballot.”
The initiative proposed by Starr—a leader in the Libertarian Party on the statewide and national levels, and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor and for the City Council in Oxnard, and other offices—would have limited service to two four-year terms either as mayor or councilmember, with a two-year wait before running again for either office. Measure B, propagated by the City Council, in addition to providing for a four-year term for the mayor, established a limit of three terms for members of the council or the mayor, but after completing three terms in either office, the person could immediately run for the other office, or run for the same office after two years.
“The City argues that when it adopted the ordinance in Starr’s petition without amendment, the City gave him the entire remedy to which he is entitled. It did the opposite. The City deprived Starr and the citizens who signed his initiative of the remedy they sought and to which they were entitled, term limits for council members.”
Issue Not Moot
Rebuffing the city’s contention that passage of Measure B last year renders Starr’s proposed initiative moot, the presiding justice observed that “there are significant differences in the way Measure B and Starr’s initiative amends and adds” to sections of the city code, saying:
“The voters have the right to decide Starr’s initiative.”
The opinion—which reverses Ventura Superior Court Henry J. Walsh’s denial of a petition for a writ of mandate—orders that the city “place Starr’s initiative on the ballot no later than 180 days.”
The case is Starr v. Chaparro, 2021 S.O.S. 5895.
Big Bear Lake attorney Chad D. Morgan represented Starr. Advancing the position of Oxnard City Clerk and the city were Holly O. Whatley and Liliane M. Wyckoff of the Pasadena firm of Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley.
Gilbert previously wrote an opinion in a case in which Starr was a party. In that Oct. 13, 2020 opinion, in City of Oxnard v. Starr, B297294, Div. Six rejected Starr’s position that an initiative returning wastewater utility rates to the level they were at before the city hiked rates was valid and that there were $5 million in over-charges that should be returned to rate-payers.
The unpublished opinion says:
“Measure M violates the Revenue Bond Law of 1941. The rates charged under Measure M are insufficient (1) to pay operation and maintenance costs plus bond debt service; (2) to operate the utility in an economical manner; and (3) to keep the utility in good repair and working order.”
“The wastewater system pumps wastewater into the ocean. Its failure affects the health and safety of everyone. Common decency and the law require that it be placed and kept in good repair and working order. Measure M did not allow that.”
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