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Citizens' initiative in Lodi 'very rare'

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Posted: Friday, April 9, 2004 10:00 pm

Getting a measure on the ballot to block a Wal-Mart Supercenter is now the goal of a local citizens group.

But with only about a month to collect more than 2,600 signatures, can it be done?

Randy Snider, who served as mayor at the time a no-smoking ban went to Lodi voters in 1990, said yes.

"I don't think it's as nearly an emotional issue as the smoking ban, but I believe they will be successful (in getting the measure on the ballot)."

It has been more than 20 years since a citizens group took an issue to voters, City Clerk Susan Blackston said.

"In a recent search, it looks like the last time a group did a citizens' initiative was in 1981," she said. "It's very rare."

That year, voters adopted Measure A to limit growth by 2 percent each year.

It was prompted by the Rural Land Owners Association and required all future annexations to the city be approved by two thirds of the voters. In 1989, however, Measure A was ruled unconstitutional by a panel of three state judges.

That effort was led by the late Wilbur Ruhl.

In 1990, citizens voted on another issue brought forward by citizens but it was through a referendum process - not a ballot initiative drive.

The City Council had approved an ordinance for a citywide smoking ordinance, but it was challenged by a citizens' group that gathered petitions and forced a referendum measure to be placed on the ballot.

Voters backed the council and agreed to outlaw lighting up inside restaurants, business lobbies and retails stores. It wasn't until four years later that a smoking ban went into effect statewide.

At that time, 2,511 petition signatures were submitted - more than the 2,369 qualified voters necessary at that time, according to News-Sentinel archives.

"It was probably the most contentious issue during my 12-year career on the council. That was a big, big deal," said Snider. He is part owner in the property on which Wal-Mart hopes to build the Supercenter.

Meanwhile, "The Small City Preservation Committee" is eager to begin collecting signatures, chairwoman Betsy Fiske told the News-Sentinel on Thursday.

She filed the ballot initiative on March 30 with the City Clerk's Office and paid a $200 processing fee.

Now, Interim City Attorney Steve Schwabauer has until Wednesday to compile a ballot title and summary before publishing it in the News-Sentinel. Its publication in a newspaper of general circulation is required by law.

From that point onward, committee members have about a month to collect the necessary signatures - 2,634 valid signatures, or 10 percent of the city's 26,332 registered voters.

(An attempt to recall former Councilman Ray Davenport in 1993 failed to make the ballot because recall supporters failed to gain the necessary signatures. However, recall backers faced a higher standard and needed signatures from 20 percent of the voters.)

City Clerk Susan Blackston hopes to send the signatures to the San Joaquin County Registrar's Office by mid-May.

Shortly thereafter, the council will be given a chance to adopt the initiative, or vote to put it on the November ballot.

The deadline to put anything before voters in November's General Election is Aug. 6.

The process will cost taxpayers between $5,000 and $10,000.

Group members, who meet every Monday evening, believe a Supercenter would cause numerous problems, from sprawl to lost jobs and shuttered businesses.

To draft the measure, they worked with a Davis land use attorney, said member Ann Cerney, also a local attorney.

Their effort has not gone unnoticed in the media. In addition to the local newspaper coverage, Fiske said Thursday she received a call from National Public Radio seeking to do a story. Additionally, a local Rotary Club has asked her to speak at Monday's meeting.

"This isn't just a Lodi issue. It's a national issue," Fiske said.

The group can be contacted by e-mail at lodiscpc@hotmail.com or by calling 369-1414.

Contact reporter Jennifer Pearson Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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