The perversion of citizen led petition drives by big money
By Richard Riehl
My afternoon nap was disturbed last month by the sound of a man’s cheery voice from behind the screen at my open front door.
Awakening from a sound sleep, I shuffled to the door to find a man standing there, holding a clipboard. He didn’t introduce himself, just explained, “We’re gathering signatures to save the strawberry fields.” I didn’t recognize him, but his easy way led me to believe he was a fellow resident of our 40-unit condo community.
Despite full knowledge of our HOA ban on door-to-door solicitation and my own vow never to sign a petition without knowing the details of what it meant and who was pushing it, I allowed the phrase, “save our strawberry fields” to cloud my better judgment. When Karen called from another room to ask who was at the door I told her it was someone who wanted to save the strawberry fields. She gladly added her name to mine for the apparent do-gooder at the door.
The following day, as I awaited my prescription in the pharmacy, I picked up the June 12 edition of The Coast News. The headline, “Nordstrom Signs On to Strawberry Fields Shopping Center,” of Ellen Wright’s article told me we had happily signed up to clear the way for a two-story shopping mall next to I-5, hiding from public view the bucolic farming scene we’ve treasured through the years.
Reading further I discovered the developer, Caruso Affiliated, has launched a “citizen-led” initiative campaign to bypass the usual approval process. The city council will be able to approve the project outright, or put it on the ballot. If 15% of registered voters signatures are gathered (8,900 signatures of 59,000 voters) and the council chooses a ballot measure, a special election will be held.
I soon discovered another news article about the project. This one in the San Diego Reader, “More Shopping, Less Strawberry Picking in Carlsbad’s Strawberry Fields?” By Ken Harrison on May 29. Harrison opines, “Some say the initiative tactic used by big developers is a ploy to sway a generally uninformed electorate, or, in some cases, hoodwink them with slick or misleading campaigns.”
I also learned Caruso Affiliated’s citizen-led initiative campaign is headed up by a former planning commissioner, a member of the Lagoon foundation, and a former Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce CEO, hardly a cross-section of community interests.
A few days later, Karen and I came upon another signature gatherer lurking outside the door of our local grocery store. His appearance was a far cry from the well-dressed neatly coiffed gentlemen at our front door. I asked him who he worked for. Visibly taken aback, he asked why I wanted to know. I told him we want to know who paid him to gather signatures. (I, too, was a far cry from the sleepy old man who shuffled to his front door last week.) He finally told us he had a card. I asked him if I could have it. He handed it to me. I discovered he worked for Voter Contact Services, Inc. in Oceanside offering services for Petition Drives, Door-To-Door, and GOTV, For Issues and Candidates. On the reverse side were instructions for turning in signatures for payment.
Here was the classic example of how citizen-led petition drives have been perverted by big money. I remember the days when signature gatherers had a personal interest in the issue and not in $1 to $3 to get my autograph.
Although I blame myself for giving away my name so readily, I also blame the lack of a local daily newspaper. If a developer calling himself “Papa” had not purchased the North County Times to kill it, Carlsbad residents would have been able to gain a far better understanding of the issues and be less vulnerable to developer spin. Full disclosure: for 9 years, as a freelancer, I wrote op-ed community opinion columns for the newspaper.
In case you haven’t heard, a Sacramento County judge ruled an initiative campaign for a new law titled Sodomite Suppression Act was “patently unconstitutional,” since it calls for the killing of gays. State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris had to ask for the ruling because she had no power to keep it off the ballot.
It makes you wonder how the author of that initiative would have spun the new law for his signature gathering campaign. Maybe something like, “Save Our Children, the Right Way.”
The Caruso Affiliated campaign for the strawberry fields shopping mall chose the title “Preserving Carlsbad Open Space” in bold type, followed by “The Right Way” in smaller, gray type. The right way means one more shopping center, not a new venue for the arts and entertainment, a place that would attract visitors for what makes Carlsbad unique, rather than just another parking place to shop, dine and catch a movie. Like L.A.