California’s ballot initiative process allows citizen activists to bypass politicians who are controlled by special interests. The ability for citizens today to connect and organize using online resources means it has never been easier for a determined group of individuals, without access to big donors, to nonetheless successfully qualify reform measures for the ballot and put them before voters.
A current example of this is the ongoing RecallGavin2020 campaign. This volunteer organization is already half-way towards collecting enough signatures to force Governor Newsom to defend his position in a special recall election. The 800,000 signed recall petitions collected so far, all by volunteers, is already in record territory. These volunteers have made history.
What can be done statewide can also be done locally. Back in 2019, in Oxnard, a small group of activists, led by Aaron Starr, a local executive with a financial background including a CPA, began working to qualify five reform initiatives. The audacity of their effort to qualify not one, but five reform initiatives was noteworthy at the time, as reported in a California Policy Center article “Citizen Reformers Set to Transform Oxnard’s Politics.”
With the November 2020 election over, what has happened in Oxnard sets an inspiring example for reform activists in every city and county in California. Following through on their plans, Starr’s group, dubbed the “Coalition for Moving Oxnard Forward,” have seriously disrupted business as usual in the City of Oxnard. For each of the five reform measures they proposed, they gathered 8,400 verified signatures (10 percent of the city’s voters), qualifying all of them for the November 2020 ballot. Here is how each of them fared:
The action began back in January of this year, when the Oxnard City Council began to take countermeasures against the five reform measures, all five of which had been qualified by then to be on the November 2020 ballot. The first of these reforms to be targeted was term limits. To cope with this potential threat to the tenure of these elected officials, they gamed the system by quietly adopting the term limits measure as law, removing the need for it to be on the ballot. They then voted to place their own watered down version of term limits onto the earlier March 2020 primary ballot, marketing it as “strict term limits,” in order to fool voters into supporting a measure that would supersede the genuine term limit reforms that they’d adopted as law.
Got that? The replacement measure, diluted but sold to voters as a tough reform, passed easily. It’s now being challenged in court.
These sorts of machinations by California’s elected officials, so many of whom are wholly owned by public sector unions and other special interests, are nothing new. Expect it.
Oxnard residents were able to vote on the remaining four reform measures, but not before the City Council sued to keep three of them off the ballot. In all three cases, the proponents were able to obtain a court order forcing the city to keep them on the ballot.
The only one that the City of Oxnard did not sue to keep off the ballot was the Measure F, dubbed “Permit Simplicity.” The motivation for this reform ought to be obvious to anyone trying to navigate the review process with most local governments in California. As the proponents put it:
“Getting a permit at Oxnard City Hall can be bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly, whether one wants to replace a water heater, remodel a home, build a tenant improvement, or expand a business. The solution is Permit Simplicity – a streamlined, safer process that enables next-day permit issuance – a program built upon a successful model implemented ten years ago in Phoenix, Arizona, the country’s fifth most populous city.”
Despite a hard fought campaign by the city against Measure F, it narrowly passed.
Oxnard civic reform activists may have slightly overreached with Measure L, “Financial Transparency.” Some of the much needed provisions of this measure included requiring city expenditures and monthly financial reports to be posted on the city’s website, along with invoices, purchase orders, submitted bids and solicitations for bids. It also required the city to use an independent auditor to conduct performance audits and to oversee a whistleblower program. The measure even made the city treasurer, an elected official – hence accountable to voters – head of the Oxnard Finance Department.
In the face of city opposition that argued strenuously against this last provision – that the elected treasurer would run the city’s finances – Measure L was defeated. But the reformers weren’t finished.
One of the big difficulties local government watchdogs face is the ability for city councils to hold meetings during the day when most private citizens are themselves working and unable to attend. Another tactic used by city governments to undermine the ability of citizens to effectively critique council actions is to blindside the attendees with new information presented by staff during council meetings.
Oxnard’s Measure M, “Open Meetings,” addresses both of these problems and others. It requires council meetings be held no earlier than 5 p.m. on weekdays. It requires staff presentations be videotaped and posted in advance of meetings. It also extends the time for individual members of the community to comment from one minute to three minutes, and allows them to present videos or PowerPoint slides.
These provisions were designed to reduce the travesty of city staff and councilmembers pushing their agenda through with minimal public awareness or input, something that is all to common in California’s cities and counties. Oxnard’s voters agreed, passing Measure M with an overwhelming majority.
Saving the most creative for last, Measure N, the “Fixing Streets” ballot measure required the city to either bring its streets up to a pavement condition index rating of 80, or be forced to terminate the half-cent sales tax increase adopted in 2008. There was an irony to the city’s opposition to this measure, because when streets are regularly maintained, moisture doesn’t go through cracks in the road surface which causes accelerated deterioration which is much more expensive to repair. But where the city could not see what was in its best interests, voters could, approving Measure N by a close but comfortable margin.
Where there’s an organized offense, there’s the capacity for defense, and opposition from Oxnard’s citizen reformers made the City work hard to pass their own Measure E, yet another new tax. Predictably, the lengthy ballot title for this measure was designed to maximize its appeal to voters. It reads:
“Shall an ordinance establishing 1 and 1/2 cent sales tax to maintain 911 emergency response times, natural disaster, public health/emergency preparedness; prevent fire station closures; address homelessness; attract/retain local businesses/jobs; keep public areas safe/clean; secure Oxnard’s long-term financial stability; maintain general services/infrastructure; requiring annual audits, public disclosure of all spending; providing $40,000,000 annually until ended by voters, used only for Oxnard, be adopted?”
What civic minded voter can refuse that appeal? The measure passed, but at 53.9 percent in favor and 46.1 percent opposed, not by a landslide.
The true motivation for the City of Oxnard to want more taxes ought to be clear by now to anyone remotely familiar with what really drives out-of-control spending by California’s local governments, pay and benefits for public employees. But that’s another story.
What the citizens of Oxnard did, successfully passing three local measures – Permit Simplicity, Open Meetings, and Fixing Streets – will make an immediate difference in how that city is governed and how local officials will now be more responsive to the citizens they serve.
Consider all of the local ballot measures that faced voters in Oxnard’s Ventura County this past November. Nearly everything on that ballot was a new tax or a new bond pushed by local elected officials. Oxnard’s citizen sourced measures stand out as the sole examples of reformers taking the initiative. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In a state where nearly every city and county is ran by government unions and billionaires, it is still possible to make a difference with ballot initiatives. In Oxnard, they’re thinking big, recognizing that rapid and transformative change requires not one, but multiple initiatives. What they’re doing can and should be replicated by serious reformers everywhere.
Note: Here are links to the complete drafts of the four reform measures put before Oxnard voters on November 3: Measure F, Measure L, Measure M, Measure N. For questions about these reforms, use the Contact Us form on the website of the Coalition for Moving Oxnard Forward. An earlier version of this article appeared on the website California Globe.