A Referendum Petition To Overturn A City Ordinance Adopting A Redevelopment Plan Must Include The Entire Text Of The Plan

In Defend Bayview Hunter’s Point Committee v. City and County of San Francisco, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 1 Dist., Oct. 21, 2008) a California Court of Appeal considered an appeal from the circulators of a referendum petition seeking to overturn a city ordinance adopting a redevelopment plan, of a lower court ruling that their petition was invalid because it failed to include the entire text of the plan they sought to overturn. The court ruled that the plan was an essential part of the “text” of the ordinance and that by law a petition that failed to include it must be invalid.


The Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco (“City”) approved the “Ordinance Adopting the Redevelopment Plan (“Plan”) for the Bayview Hunters Point Redevelopment Project” (“Ordinance”). The Ordinance did not contain the plan’s complete language, but read, in part, that the plan “is incorporated in and made a part of this Ordinance with the same force and effect as though set forth fully herein.”

The Defend Bayview Hunters Point Committee (“DBHPC”) opposed the ordinance and circulated a referendum petition aimed at overturning it. Their petition included the language of the ordinance but not the full text of the plan. When they submitted their signatures to the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors (“Clerk”), the Clerk refused to accept the petitions on the grounds that they were invalid because they did not include the full text of the plan. DBHPC filed suit seeking to force the Clerk to accept the petitions and proceed with the referendum. The trial court denied the petition, and DBHPC appealed.


Elections Code Section 9238 provides that a referendum petition must contain “the text of the ordinance or the portion of the ordinance that is subject to the referendum.” The issue here, then, was whether the plan, incorporated into the ordinance but not fully quoted in it, was part of the “text” of the ordinance.

The court referred to similar circumstances in Nelson v. Carlson (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 732, where referendum petition circulators had failed to include a full copy of a land use plan contained in the resolution they sought to overturn. The Nelson court found that omission to be a fatal flaw in the referendum: “The resolution’s focus was on the adoption of the plan and that document was incorporated into it. Without the plan individuals reviewing the petition had no way of informatively evaluating whether to sign it.”

Similarly, in this case, “the plan was the resolution’s focal point and was expressly made a part of it,” the court said. The fundamental purpose of the “text” requirement is that voters considering a referendum petition be fully informed about the substance of the challenged measure, the court reasoned. Further, the Legislature has provided no exception for technical, lengthy, or bulky documents, the court added. Since the details of the plan were at issue, voters could not have made an informed decision without their inclusion in the petition. The clerk therefore had a ministerial duty to reject the petition and the trial court’s ruling was affirmed.


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