Campaign reform group wants trial to end

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North County Times

After failing to enact a campaign finance reform initiative in the city of Vista, the group behind the measure asked an appeals court Thursday to throw out a case challenging the initiative’s constitutionality.

“We’re trying to go home now,” said Attorney Fredric Woocher, who represented the Oaks Project at Thursday’s hearing at the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego. Woocher argued that since the measure was not approved anyway, a ruling on whether it is unconstitutional would be pointless.

But the city of Vista, which originally filed the lawsuit in Superior Court, doesn’t want to let the Oaks Project off the hook so easy.

Vista was one of six cities in the state targeted last year by the Oaks Project, a statewide group formed by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The group launched efforts in each of those six communities to put the campaign finance reform initiative before voters in November.

A petition signed by 5,400 local voters successfully forced Vista to put the initiative on the ballot, but the city sued the Oaks Project, saying the measure was unconstitutional because campaign contributions are a form of free speech. A Superior Court judge agreed with the city and ruled that the initiative be yanked from the ballot.

When the Oaks Project appealed that decision, an appellate judge ordered the measure back on the ballot and said the question of constitutionality would be decided later.

The initiative —- dubbed Proposition W —- received support from roughly 59 percent of voters in Vista, but was eclipsed when 64 percent supported a competing campaign finance measure floated by the city.

Now that the election is over and the initiative lost, Woocher says, there is nothing left to argue.

“There is little doubt that this case is technically moot,” Woocher said. “We brought it up because we thought it was wrong that the court kept (the initiative) off the ballot.”

Initially judges expressed confusion as to why Vista didn’t agree to dismiss the case.

“They have said it’s moot (and if) we agree, are you objecting?” Judge Richard Huffman asked the city’s attorney.

Another judge asked if this was all about who would pay attorney fees.

But John Ramirez, who is representing the city, said Vista’s motive now is to prevent the Oaks Project from sneaking away and returning later with another lawsuit.

“It’s clear to me that the driving force is they want to save the option to litigate this measure again in the city of Vista,” Ramirez said, predicting another lawsuit between Vista and the Oaks Project eight months from now if the initiative is not ruled unconstitutional.

“What we want is a judicial determination as to the validity of this measure,” Ramirez said.

He told the judges that they would leave lingering doubts in Vista and other cities if they failed to decide the issue.

Out of the six cities where Prop. W was put on the ballot, Vista was the only one to mount a pre-election challenge.

The initiative is now in affect in San Francisco and Santa Monica and will be on the ballot in Pasadena, and Clairemont in March.

All of the cities, except San Francisco, have contacted Vista and filed Friend of the Court briefs asking the court to rule on the merits of the proposition, rather than dismissing the case as moot.

Oaks attorney Woocher says Vista is pushing for a judgment against Prop. W to set a precedent for other cities to remove the initiative from their ballots.

Woocher pointed out that the initiative is already in affect in Santa Monica and San Francisco and said that if it is judged unconstitutional in this instance, “it would be very destructive to the initiative’s process in those cities.”

One judge acknowledged that other cities could use the outcome of this case to determine the future of the initiative in their cities.

“What Santa Monica would love to happen is to have this court decide the measure is invalid,” Judge Huffman said.

The Judges have 90 days to come back with a decision on the matter.

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