By (Some of) the People, For (Some of) the People

By Greg Sousa

The fundamental problem with the “2020 Burbank Just Cause Eviction and Rent Regulation Measure” — which goes before Burbank voters on November 3rd — is that it was written to satisfy a special interest, not the best interest of the community. Although it is being sold as an exercise in community activism, a more objective observer might see it as a subversion of the democratic process.

This becomes clear when one looks at the traditional legislative process. 

Most of us remember how it used to work: a bill is introduced in a legislative body that represents a cross-section of the electorate. The bill changes (hopefully for the better) as it goes through committees, hearings, and amendments. Throughout the process, the public at large has an opportunity to weigh in on the bill, either through public hearings or through their elected representatives. In many cases, a bill goes through the same process in the other chamber of the legislature, until finally, the bill makes it to the desk of someone who must sign the bill in order for it to become law.

(Click here for a refresher)

In theory, this traditional legislative model results in an inclusive, deliberative process, because ideally, the law should be a way of balancing the competing interests within a society, rather than a means for one group to exact retribution upon another. 

In practice, it affords an opportunity for many to weigh in on the matter, not just those who are promoting the legislation. Democracy prefers this approach, because unilateral lawmaking rarely results in good public policy.

We may contrast those ideals with the initiative process, which originated in the progressive movement of the early 20th century. 

The ballot initiative was meant to serve as the people’s check on the legislature. However, the initiative process has come under fire from those who argue that it places too much power in the hands of special interests, that it leads to bad public policy, and that it unreasonably limits the legislature in setting budget priorities.1 

Critics also point out that special interest groups will sometimes promote flawed initiatives in an effort to force the legislature to pass a less harmful alternative.2

So then, how does the Burbank Tenant’s Rights Committee initiative stand up against these objections? 

In fact, the BTRC initiative raises each of those concerns. For example:

  • The process behind the Tenants Rights initiative was neither inclusive nor deliberative. Rent control proponent Konstantine Anthony initially made the rather incredible claim that he had personally authored the initiative, and — even after backing away from that claim — made no pretense of public participation in the process. There was no grass-roots effort to gather the signatures required to place the measure on the ballot; paid petition circulators were hired instead. 
  • On its face, the proposed ordinance satisfies a specific interest group by burdening one part of the community for the benefit of another, while at the same time limiting the budgetary priorities of the City Council by imposing unlimited financial liabilities upon the City.
  • Perhaps the most glaring issue with the proposed ordinance is that it would make bad public policy.  As many have observed, the measure would create an independent entity that would operate beyond the oversight and restraint of the voter, while also having the authority to collect fees and assess penalties (in other words, it would bring about taxation without representation).  Much like the over-expansive theory of free speech that resulted in the Citizens United decision, the unfortunate irony here is the misuse of a progressive innovation (the initiative process) to bring about less accountability and transparency in our local government.3
  • Arguably, the BTRC did not promote this measure in good faith, but only did so to force the City Council to adopt a less onerous alternative. This is especially plausible in light of Mr. Anthony’s repeated threats to force the City to incur substantial legal expenses should it decide not to cede to his demand that the measure immediately be put to a vote.

This is probably not the initiative process envisioned by the original progressive reformers. 

When California adopted the ballot initiative (as part of the reform movement that also included giving women the vote), it was predicated on the assumption that an informed electorate would be the bulwark against ill-advised legislative proposals (indeed, now that they’ve had a chance to read the entire 36 page rent control proposal, many people see its shortcomings). 

While it is possible to understand how our fellow citizens might have signed the petition without fully understanding its implications, it seems far less likely that the proponents of the ballot initiative were equally oblivious. And the fact that they appear not at all concerned by the unanticipated consequences of their actions is alarming to anyone who cares about the democratic process and good governance in Burbank.

  1. See, for example: Matsusaka, John G.; Direct Democracy Works, Journal of Economic Perspectives,
  2. Bollag, Sophia; Special Interests Make Smart Use of California’s Ballot,
  3. For an excellent discussion of Citizens United and its unintended consequences, see Brill, Steven. Tailspin (pp. 112-156). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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