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Beware Drawing Conclusions About Local Ballot Measures

Nov 25, 2008
Gauging elections after they are over is seldom easy, especially when an election involves a citizen initiative. What does the initiative really do? Why did people vote for it? Did growth opponents win?

Whenever reporters ask Bill Fulton or me to characterize the overall results of an election like the one on November 4, we inevitably work the term "mixed bag" into our response. We are able to draw broad conclusions voters in coastal urban areas decide on growth initiatives and referendums far more often than inland voters but we usually have a tough time generalizing about the overall results of initiative and referendum elections, because growth politics are extremely local. We'd never make it in talk radio: All we see is nuance.

Still, we want to provide analysis, because direct democracy on planning and development issues is not going away. Local elections mean something. Thus, we do our best to characterize ballot measures as "slow growth" or "pro growth." After we tally up results, we can report, as we do in this month's big election wrap up, that one side or the other had an edge.

However, determining whether a ballot measure intends to slow or stop growth or conversely intends to encourage or authorize growth is more art than science. A referendum on an approved project (Measure H in Beverly Hills) is obviously a slow-growth measure. The intent is to stop a development. Initiatives that prevent development of certain types or in defined locations without subsequent voter approval (Redondo Beach Measure DD) also fall squarely into the slow growth camp. A measure that proposes a specific project (Proposition B in the San Diego area) is overtly pro growth.

A touch of gray, however, shades initiatives that lock in agricultural zoning (Measure P in Napa County, Measure T in Solano County). Yes, the initiatives block most development in unincorporated areas, but advocates argue they are simply guiding growth to cities that can handle it. Sometimes that's a sincere argument, sometimes it's not. We define Measures P and T as slow growth because, unless voters say otherwise in the future, they sharply limit building on hundreds of thousands of acres. Bonds to fund acquisition of open space and parkland fall into the same camp: The acquisitions might be part of an overall growth strategy, but they definitely prevent development of certain lands.

What of things such as Berkeley's Measure KK, which sought to prevent creation of bus rapid transit lanes? We classified this as slow growth because the initiative backers' intent was to halt AC Transit's proposed BRT lane on Telegraph Avenue. Initiative backers oppose that dense development could line the BRT route in the future.

Then there are city-crafted alternatives to slow-growth initiatives, such as Measure EE in Redondo Beach and Pleasanton's Measure QQ. Some alternative measures poke a thumb in the eye of slow-growth advocates, some are deliberately vague, and some are genuine compromises. We declined to characterize either Measure EE or QQ because both appeared to walk a fine line.

So, the results of the November 4 election? We'd say it was a mixed bag.

Paul Shigley