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Jonathan Kraut: Petitions are the people’s remedy

Posted: May 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.

One of the most profound rights we have as citizens is the right to petition. The First Amendment of our Constitution “prohibits Congress from abridging or prohibiting the right of the people ... to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

In California, a petition endorsed by 10 percent of verified registered voters in a specific jurisdiction is a legal document.

Basically, if enough registered voters living in a geographic area sign a petition, the government must react.
Petitions can either place a measure on a ballot or require a referendum, which suspends an already-enacted measure, pending voter approval at a later election.

Petitions are the people’s remedy. They defend against the influence of lobbyists, big money, exchanges for re-election support, public official cowardice, and even stupid elected officials who make bad decisions.
Petitions are essential to our political sanity, as they are our way to veto newly enacted bills.

Voters need to be cautious about just signing any petition or voting for any bill that sounds good on the surface because many are intentionally misleading. The “Patriot Act” actually removed measures of personal privacy, which seems unpatriotic. “The No Child Left Behind Act” has left children behind.

You have to really read any measure through to be sure it would actually accomplish what is promoted in the petition title. Fortunately, most petitions are short.

When a petition pertains to a newly passed law, it is called a “referendum,” which suspends the law until the voters have a chance to vote for or against it.

Yes, even bone-headed attempts to change the rules can be halted.

The Santa Clarita City Council voted March 25 for a bill that would remove 62 small billboards in the city — in exchange for a 50-year lease for three new electronic billboards. The bill on the face of it sounds not too bad.

The “aye” votes were cast by recently re-elected Marsha McLean, the outgoing Frank Ferry (who left office the next month), and Bob Kellar.
But Councilman TimBen Boydston and Canyon Country activist Al Ferdman, along with other local notables, rightfully oppose the measure.

Councilwoman Laurene Weste properly recused herself from the vote, citing conflict-of-interest issues.

The idea was first peddled as a “beautification project.” But the three mega-signs would be placed on Highway 14 and Interstate 5, casting a halo in the haze at night and outshining the sun on cloudy mornings.

In fact, these electronic signs would project enough light to be seen by the International Space Station (I kid you not).

A few days ago local residents got together 18,000 signatures to stop this bone-headed law from going into effect.

Although 11,000 locally registered voter signatures were needed to call for a referendum, typically about one-third of signatures gathered are duplicates, those of non-residents, those of people not registered to vote or those of convicted felons, and therefore invalid.

Validating the signatures is now in the hands of Los Angeles County election officials. It looks like the petition should meet the number required. In time we can all decide to enact it or not.

Getting 18,000 signatures was no small feat, by the way. Some business interest or agency apparently hired an independent contracting firm to staff signature-gathering sites with “blockers.”

A blocker is a person, often making up to $1,000 a week, whose job it is to disrupt, distract and intimidate potential signatories and signature gatherers.

It’s like someone hired to tackle you as you swing at a golf ball.

Beneficiaries of the city’s contract for the electronic billboard deal have a lot to gain if the law stands: a 50-year rent deal, access to millions of cars and flashing signs that rotate their ads every 10 seconds.

Local candidates for City Council have benefited by placing low-cost, effective messages using our local billboards.

Imagine the sense of safety for incumbents if the little guy can’t wage an effective political campaign to unseat them by using inexpensive media in future elections.

While moths and sunglass retailers might also appreciate the extra illumination, it seems that stripping low-cost signage in exchange for building mega-signs favors only big money and incumbency.

Jonathan Kraut serves in the Democratic Party of the SCV, on the SCV Human Relations Forum and SCV Interfaith Council.



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