Initiative Abuse 101: How to Buy an Election in Beverly Hills

While other cities faced with financial crises are looking at massive budget cuts, reductions in service levels, lay-offs and furloughs are all real possibilities. There are discussions and ballot measures in various cities to roll back government employee pensions and benefits.

With all the talk about belt-tightening, Measure 2P in Beverly Hills aims to expand government-subsidized free parking. Seriously.

And, no, the City of Beverly Hills is not rolling in dough. While we have managed to weather the sour economy better than some other cities, we're hardly immune to the same economic forces which have been battering municipalities nationwide and we have cut over $27 million from our budget in the past two years. Like other cities, we still need to control spiraling costs if we want to achieve long-term stability.

While free parking may seem like a so-called high-class problem, Measure 2P is indicative of a larger problem that continues to plague the state of California at many levels: initiative abuse. Similar to the ill-fated textbook example of initiative abuse, Prop 16, whereby PG&E spent $44 million trying to get voters to effectively codify their monopoly, Measure 2P in Beverly Hills is being virtually fully paid for by a wealthy medical developer who feels that government-subsidized free parking helps them justify their sky-high rents. Call it PG&E in BH if you will, or initiative abuse, local government-style.

While according to the Los Angeles Business Journal, Beverly Hills already has the most generous city-sponsored free parking policy in the region and there are no plans to change this, for the medical developers (who are not residents, I may add) it's still not enough. And as of Feb. 19, they have spent over a half million dollars on everything from newspaper ads, glossy mailers, expensive lobbyists, paid walkers, polling, lawn signs, and, yes, even TV commercials. That's right: TV commercials for a local election in Beverly Hills.

Even their political consultant, veteran (and expensive) "gun for hire" Harvey Englander, whose firm according to filings has as of Feb. 19 already raked in $377,616.45 (with another $137,622.18 in outstanding bills yet to be paid and more to come), admits that while Measure 2P is good for his business, it's bad policy from a good government perspective.

And he's right: ballot box budgeting of this ilk has already gotten the state into so much financial trouble that there is effectively no way to demand accountability from the politicians to actually balance the budget. And it's certainly one thing - even if problematic - to engage in ballot box budgeting for such core services as education or public safety or senior care. But for free parking?

The self-entitlement of certain special interests, it seems, knows no bounds. Even the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, recognizing the terrible precedent this self-serving scheme would create, opposes Measure 2P. They understand that Measure 2P would actually be bad for business. And it would blow a hole in the City's budget of an estimated $1.3 million. Each year.

Here we are trying to control a City budget where spiraling costs regularly seem to outstrip revenue. We're furloughing employees and trying to create sustainability through such wide-reaching measures as trimming staff and effecting pension reform. Shouldn't any free parking policy also be sustainable? And yet the special interests seriously think the City should blow an extra $1.3 million a year on free parking just so they can charge higher rents in their medical buildings. And, yes, these are the same guys who themselves charge $8 an hour in their own parking lots. Just ask yourself: what city in the world uses taxpayer dollars to provide free parking for medical buildings in this or in any economy? Some fat cats, it seems, won't be concerned about killing the goose that lays the golden egg until it's too late.

As a result of this special interest grab, the City Council put Measure 3P on the ballot as a less egregious alternative. Measure 3P would offer residents of Beverly Hills three hours of free parking, without changing the current generous free parking policy towards non-residents. While 3P clearly is a reaction to 2P, the reasoning was that if there is to be a cost to the City for an expansion of free parking, it would be better to give the benefit to the residents than to rich developers. Furthermore, 3P does not hamstring the Council in the same way as 2P and is more fiscally responsible, as it is estimated to cost the City close to a million dollars a year less than 2P.

Of course, with all the propaganda that more than a half million bucks will buy, it will be difficult for our residents to sift through the deceptive half-truths and see the facts. Unfortunately, if Prop 16 shows that you can't fool all of the people all of the time, you still can fool all (or most) of the people some of the time.

As the result of Prop 16, I started working on a transparency ordinance which would require greater disclosure, with the simple reasoning that the more information made available to the public, the better. A drop in the bucket, to be sure, but we did pass the ordinance last year which, among other things, required advocacy groups to include the full name of the actual ballot initiative. The thought was that this would inform the public of the measure referenced in advertisements and allow voters to get further information themselves.

The proponents of 2P, who are naturally opposing 3P, have not abided by this ordinance at all. In fact, they sent our City Attorney a letter declaring it "unconstitutional," as if they were our own local version of the Supreme Court. Perhaps they were concerned about false claims that had little or nothing to do with the actual initiative, but which made for good sound bites in our "he who shouts the loudest, wins" society.

In one of their multitudinous mailers, there is a screaming headline "3P does not guarantee residents free parking." As mentioned, in violation of our ordinance, the actual title of Measure 3P was nowhere to be found. Measure 3P's title is: "An ordinance of the City of Beverly Hills establishing a three hour free parking program for residents."

While Measure 2P on the back of this unprecedented spend may end up coming out ahead at the polls, it is likely to be thrown out by the courts. In a ruling on Jan. 4, trial judge Ann I. Jones wrote that Measure 2P is "constitutionally proscribed." While an appellate court issued a temporary stay on her ruling, allowing the election to go forward, Judge Jones's decision has neither been vacated nor overturned.

Fortunately, the developers' lawyers are not the Supreme Court and Judge Jones's well-reasoned decision will hopefully be upheld. As she writes: "The Parking Initiative clearly fails as an invalid exercise of the electorate's initiative power."

However, we can hardly rely on fatal mistakes by the special interests to save the day each time they make a brazen attempt to fool the voters. We need to figure out ways to stop the deception and to minimize the impact of initiative abuse throughout our State. Greater transparency and disclosure is a great start, but it is only a start.