HASTA LA BASTA: I was trying to buy a quart of milk at Vons when I was set upon by two young men armed with suspiciously white teeth, impeccable personal hygiene, and two clipboards that glimmered in the high-noon sun. They wanted my signature for a statewide ballot initiative. It had something to do, they explained, with a string of worthy-sounding nouns — like schools, equality, democracy — which, when combined, induce instant brain freeze. One of the signature gatherers elaborated how their initiative would address school bullying. Instantly, I straightened up, and politely returned their clipboard. Unsigned. It’s not that I support school bullies. I just remember what worked for me when I — addled, no doubt, by soaring testosterone counts — briefly tried my hand pushing other kids around. After one of my prospective victims punched me in the nose — twice in rapid succession — I quickly found other ways to express my male dominance. There’s no shortage of crafty legislative geniuses out there, but somehow I doubt even they can figure out how to put “two shots on the kisser” into legally enforceable language.
In California’s political mythology, the initiative process was embraced by good-government reformers back in 1911 as a fail-safe weapon of last resort to be availed upon by the disenfranchised multitudes only after the greedy special interests controlling the statehouse had stymied the will of the people. All that’s since been turned upside down. Santa Barbara’s politically powerful mayor, Helene Schneider, is now collecting signatures for three ballot measures — one to increase the sales tax, one to raise business fees on bar and restaurant owners doing business in Santa Barbara’s infamously popular Drunk-and-Disorderly Zone, and another which takes a stab at “reforming” city-employee pensions. What makes this weird is that Schneider — certainly one of the more accomplished and popular political players to grace the scene in a very long time — never sought to use the power and opportunity available to her as mayor to push for any of these reforms through normal channels. Whatever merits her proposals may or may not have, no one can argue Schneider’s path has been blocked by any coterie of well-greased fat cats holding City Hall hostage. (It should be noted that under state law, Schneider had to take her sales tax increase and the booze fee bump to voters, but the same can’t be said for her pension reform.) I admit these are controversial issues. And it’s clearly the case that public-employee unions, which give candidates a whole lot of money, enjoy a ton of influence. But to argue these unions are too powerful to allow pension reform to pass via the normal process flies in the face of the facts. Last November, the three City Council candidates backed by the allegedly omnipotent police and firefighter unions lost and lost badly. For the guns-n-hoses power block, it was an unprecedented spanking. And when the cops declared an impasse with City Hall negotiators last year, six of the seven councilmembers were ready to cram a contract down the union’s throat.
Now the Police Officers Association (POA) is getting into the act, as well, via an intriguing front group of disgruntled citizen activists, former councilmembers (Iya Falcone and Michael Self), former city staff (former fire chief Warner McGrew), and a former FBI agent (Tom Parker) who’s helped expose scandalous conditions in the L.A. County Jail and has gone nose-to-nose with Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez when serving on the city’s Fire and Police Commission. They’re pushing a ballot measure that would amend the city’s constitution to give the City Council — rather than the city administrator — the authority to hire and fire the police chief. It’s no secret that Mike McGrew (son of Warner) of the POA can’t stand City Administrator Jim Armstrong, who has fought to keep police spending in check, especially during our recent deficit-riddled depression. And it’s no secret that the union regards Chief Sanchez as a stooge for not defying Armstrong and demanding more money. Supporters term the new initiative a “power-to-the-people–type thing.” Critics call it “a POA power grab.” Both sides have their arguments, but I’d rather not hear any of them. I’m sick of initiatives.
The last one I supported — Proposition 22 in 2010 — backfired badly. Prop. 22 guaranteed it would stop the state legislature from raiding the coffers of city halls and redevelopment agencies statewide. Given how the legislature “borrowed” millions from Santa Barbara’s redevelopment agency — which generates $8 million a year in discretionary dollars — in the past, I figured we needed some protection. When Governor Jerry Brown ignored Prop. 22 last year and went after the redevelopment cookie jar, the cities sued. California’s Supreme Court judges, in their ruling, hacked the baby to bits and pieces, effectively abolishing all redevelopment agencies immediately. One of the major reasons the state’s budget is perpetually out of whack — and why Brown and the legislature need to rob local governments — is because of Prop. 13, passed in 1978 to curb excessive property-tax levies that were, in fact, putting seniors out of their homes. Or maybe it’s because of the Three Strikes Law — that California voters passed by initiative — that’s given our state the biggest — and most expensive — prison population this side of Siberia. Or maybe it’s the institutional brain-drain self-inflicted by state voters when they passed the state’s term-limits law to eradicate the scourge of career politicians. Career politicians haven’t gone away; they’re just as ambitious, just meaner, more ignorant, and more impatient.
For the record, I really like Schneider and McGrew. But if you think the convoluted machinery of pensions — or government bureaucracies — can be fixed with an initiative, you ain’t been paying attention. Based on the unintended dysfunction wrought by most California initiatives, I’d wager you’d have a better chance using a jack hammer to perform circumcisions. Oh, wasn’t there going to be an anti-circumcision initiative this November? Good thing for us its supporters backed off.