A ballot initiative to remove parking meters from downtown Ventura has been knocked off the November ballot by a Ventura County Superior Court judge. 

Opponents of the parking meters – including several members of the local Tea Party (see CP&DR Vol. 26, No. 15 Aug. 1, 2011) – had gathered 8,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. However, Judge Mark Burrell ruled that use of an initiative to remove parking meters is pre-empted by Vehicle Code Section 22508 as interpreted by an appellate court case decided in 1967. He rejected the proponents' argument that the Vehicle Code did not apply because the main purpose of the meters was to raise money, not to control traffic.

In addition to ordering removal of the parking meters, Measure J also would have required 2/3 voter approval on all future plans to charge for parking on city streets and city-owned property. City officials claimed that this requirement would hamstring future attempts to build parking garages downtown and near the city's main hospital, and would even impede attempts to create new residential permit parking districts because parking permits cost $10 per year.

It is very unusual for a judge to remove an initiative from the ballot prior to an election. However, past court rulings have concluded that if an initiative is patently illegal, there is no point in holding an election. 

The state Vehicle Code generally pre-empts local actions on traffic regulation. Vehicle Code Section 22508 has a long history with regard to ballot measures.  In Mervyn v. Acker, 189 Cal.App.2d 558 (1961), the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that this section pre-empted a San Diego initiative that attempted to remove parking meters. 

Later that year, the Legislature amended Section 22508 to permit referenda on parking meters but did not include the right to referendum. In a subsequent court case, Bragg v. City of Auburn, 253 Cal.App.2d 50 1967), the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the amended Vehicle Code section did, indeed, prohibit initiatives to remove parking meters. Since that time, the Vehicle Code has been reorganized but Section 22508 has not been amended.

In court, the initiative's proponents argued that the Vehicle Code did not apply because the main purpose of the parking meter system was to establish "a municipal fee monopoly" for parking. Judge Burrell rejected the argument out of hand in oral argument and relied on the previous court cases in removing the measure from the ballot.

"The court finds that the object of the Initiative is to govern a matter which is not within the electorate's power to govern through the initiative process," Judge Burrell wrote in his decision. "No purpose would be served by placing it on the ballot."

Ventura introduced paid parking in approximately 300 spaces downtown last September as part of its Downtown Parking Management plan. Merchant unrest about the meters was high last fall but petered out after retailers had a strong holiday season. City officials point out there, even with the paid parking system, Downtown Ventura still has more than 2,000 free parking spaces.

The initiative was put forth by three local residents – the owner of a knife-and-flag store downtown, a local Tea Party activist, and a former downtown property owner and business owner. The signatures were gathered in a period of six weeks with the active involvement of Tea Party members. Few downtown merchants were involved in the campaign. The measure received considerable publicity because it captured the attention of conservative radio personalities John and Ken, who broadcast on KFI, a 50,000-watt radio station in Los Angeles.

In July, the Ventura City Council placed the measure on the ballot but also voted 4-3 to file the pre-emption lawsuit. After losing the lawsuit, the proponents decided not to appeal but focus instead on defeating the two incumbents in this fall's election who supported the meters. One of the two is longtime Ventura County planner Carl Morehouse, who is running for his fourth term on the City Council. Morehouse voted in favor of installing the parking meters but against the lawsuit. 

Mayor Bill Fulton, a planning consultant and also publisher emeritus of CP&DR, supported both the meters and the lawsuit but is not running for re-election to the City Council.

The Case:

City Of San Buenaventura V. Preston, Ventura County Superior Court No. 56-2011-00400736-Cu-Wm-Vta