Op-ed: Think about the importance of your signature on a petition

By Laurie Capitelli

Laurie Capitelli serves Berkeley as a City Councilman representing District 5.

Berkeley’s iconic wisteria is exploding. Our young trees on Solano are budding out after their (barely) second winter. And as spring declares its arrival, so does our upcoming election season.

As a result, we should all get ready to be pursued by both paid and volunteer initiative petition signature gatherers on our street corners, in front of Peet’s, the Bowl, the Cheeseboard and the Farmers Market.

As you enjoy the fine weather this spring and frequent your favorite community shopping area, please think carefully about your signature and its importance. Consider asking the signature gatherer a few questions:

  • What compelling issue(s) demand a voter initiative in order to be resolved?
  • What may be unintended consequences of the ballot measure?
  • Do we want to lock such a proposal into our charter or municipal code that can be changed only by going back to the ballot?
  • Is there a hidden agenda in the proposal and what is it?
  • Who is sponsoring the initiative and/or possibly paying the signature gatherers?

If you are satisfied with the answers to your questions and believe the voters can make an informed choice, by all means sign the petition. If you are not, please don’t.

Berkeley has possibly the most intelligent and politically informed voting community in the state. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t express my concerns: this year there are dozens of proposed statewide and local ballot measures. In Berkeley alone there are seven initiatives for the ballot in various stages of the process. You will probably run into a petition once a day if you are out and about much.

I know many of us believe that to ‘put it to a vote’ or ‘let the people decide’ – no matter what the circumstances or the consequences – is an important right of direct democracy. This may seem appropriate in theory, but in practice it is too often a sledgehammer approach to an honest problem needing a more nuanced solution. And it’s an ineffective way to govern. Witness that the state of California has one of the largest (if not the largest) constitutions in the world. Because most citizen initiatives leave little room for midcourse corrections, the legislative body is left with no alternative but returning to the voters in 2 years or 4 years to clean up the mess.

I have always been an advocate of informed decision making. I sincerely believe that elected officials must go through a process of gathering information from a variety of perspectives, weighing the public benefits and implications of those perspectives and then developing a policy or law that emerges from such a process. We rely on a highly professional staff, many boards and commissions with very dedicated citizen volunteers, and a well-informed electorate eager to participate in the process and inform our decisions.

One of the obvious problems with the ballot box legislation is that we skip this vetting process. Many voters, facing a lengthy, complex ballot rely on a few well chosen (and programmed) phrases. Then the campaigns utilize three or four soundbites sent out on a couple of 4 x 6 postcards with a warm and fuzzy picture or two. Maybe a few of us get to a League of Women Voters forum and even fewer actually read the legal language in the voters’ pamphlet.

Of course citizens who sincerely believe their elected officials have erred should have the right and the means to referend those decisions. This is a part of the necessary checks and balances of our legislative process. But too often in these cases we are still left with soundbites and photo ops to garner our vote.

Democracy is fragile . . . even in Berkeley. Your informed input is vital to strengthening our community and that is one thing we can all agree upon.

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  • berkeleyan

    I very strongly agree with this sentiment: I always carefully read what I am signing before I sign it.

    I also share the concern about ballot-box legislation: it is one of the reasons I was strongly opposed to Measure S.

    I do believe that there are appropriate times for propositions, and I am glad that they are a part of our process; but I encourage everyone: if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it!

  • guest

    Sadly, thorough contact with various activist groups, I have come to believe that most of them are not honest. Whatever the issue, their interest is in getting their way. I wouldn’t believe any statement of fact by anyone trying to get me to sign a petition.

  • guest

    The last two times I stopped to sign petitions in front of Trader Joe’s (both in Berkeley and El Cerrito) I read some of the petitions they were asking me to sign and realized that the signature gatherer was lying to people about the content of the petitions.

    This is becoming a serious problem and unless these people who are gathering signatures begin being prosecuted for lying to the public they will continue to do so.

  • Rita

    Right on! Ask the signature-gatherer some polite and sympathetic but nonetheless clear and reasonable questions. (He or she needs the job; besides, let’s not shoot the messenger.) Try, for example, 1) who is paying you? If they don’t know, follow up with: if you don’t know, you should – don’t let yourself be a pawn in someone else’s profit-making game! 2) What are some of the arguments from the other side of this issue? 3) Thanks for getting out on the street, but inform yourself and share the facts with the shoppers rather than asking for blind support.

  • Brad Johnson

    I’ve worked in local Bay Area politics for several years as a staffer for a prominent local environmental organization. I’ve worked to elect many local officials and have worked for Mr. Bates, Mr. Worthingon, and Mr. Arreguine.

    Before that I worked mostly at the federal level. I do not support the CA ballot measure system.

    Let’s be clear what’s going on. Mr. Capitelli is writing this piece in an attempt to make it more difficult for Mr. Worthington et. al. to qualify a ballot measure pertaining to Berkeley City Council redistricting. I wish he’d just be honest about that instead of dancing around the elephant in the room. I find it problematic that Mr. Capitelli can write an op-ed calling for tough questions and transparency in the ballot measure business without disclosing his obvious motives and the political context. Especially given his fourth and fifth bullet points.

    Mr. Capitelli will likely run for mayor with Mr. Bate’s blessing.

    I’m not sure if I support the ballot measure, or not. I have not donated money or time, things I usually do. Mostly because I’m troubled by the lack of honesty in the rhetoric. I do not know how I will vote on this and have not signed any petition.

    I’m trying to call them like I see them here. I hope this helps my neighbors in Berkeley understand the very real subtext to this column.

  • http://www.4wheeledlefty.com/ wheeler58

    One such ballot proposition that is bad, but is being lied about as being good, is one from SEIU-UHW. This proposed proposition would require that In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) providers (or caregivers) complete a 75 mandatory training program in order to be eligible to be allowed to work as IHSS attendants.

    For one thing, this ballot proposition is opposed by a large majority of IHSS consumers (seniors and disabled). It’s opposed because it’s very costly (an estimated $500 million), and this expense would be taken out of the IHSS budget. This would result in cutting the number of service hours that an IHSS consumer currently receives. This could very well result in disabled and seniors, served by this system, being forced into nursing homes because they would be left without enough hours of IHSS care to remain living independently in the community.

    Another thing that the leadership from SEIU-UHW refuses to take into consideration is the fact that over two thirds of IHSS providers are family members taking care of disabled and elderly parents, children, and siblings. Does the union actually think that it’s appropriate of them to get legislation passed that would make it mandatory for family members to take 75 hours of training to take care of loved ones?

    In any event, this training should not be mandatory because a majority of IHSS providers are opposed to having yet another stipulation forced upon them. The IHSS system is already dysfunctional as it is, mostly because of ridiculous and costly regulations from the state of California. Most IHSS providers are saying that they will give up doing attendant work rather than to take additional training.

    Another fact is that this ballot proposition is not supported by other locals of SEIU. Even SEIU’s state governing body do not support it. SEIU-ULCTW, the local that represents homecare workers in Alameda County is on the verge of actively opposing it, mostly because they recognize the tremendous harm it will do to the IHSS system and its consumers and providers.

    If you care about the well-being of disabled people on seniors who depend on the IHSS system for their survival, do not sign this petition.

  • guest

    I have observed that a lot of what goes on the ballot as initiatives should have been dealt with by our elected officials.

  • Mag Raine

    Case in point: the mandatory 75 training for IHSS workers. Don’t buy it! It’s a sham by SEIU bosses to enrich themselves! PLease end here: vote NO!

  • John Freeman

    You are suggesting that Mr. Capitelli as some kind of hidden agenda. I’ve learned from him in council meetings that he’s greatly offended by that kind of suggestion. It’s the sort of thing people should never say, unless he’s the one saying it, as in this op-ed.

  • guest

    Most signature gatherers I’ve encountered appear to be doing it to supplement their income. Almost none I’ve tried to talk to have been able to discuss the measure(s) they’re collecting signatures for in an informed way; they’re also frequently aggressive and rude. Many of them can barely disguise their anger when you say no, and they sure as hell aren’t interested in any reasoned objections you might have to a particular measure — what they want is to get paid, end of sentence. So any individual or group with enough money, like the six Californias nitwit, can hire a mercenary army of desperate people who would otherwise be selling Street Spirit and have them harass, trick, or wheedle enough members of the general public into signing these things so that they can bypass our elected representatives and put whatever weird little law they’ve dreamed up before the voting public. This is not democracy, it’s a perversion of it.

    A few years ago, I decided to boycott the entire process, as I think it’s caused irreparable harm to California. I’ve tried politely explaining this a few times, and have almost always been met with blank incomprehension on the part of the person holding the clipboard.

    Btw, perhaps the most troubling example of signature gathering I’ve seen in Berkeley was a seemingly developmentally disabled man outside of Peet’s, who appeared to have someone monitoring him. He had a handwritten sign that said “Save health services,” but the one measure he had a petition for had nothing to do with that. Talk about a new low.

  • Mamma

    I quit signing petitions years ago because they never give you a chance to read the whole thing, and often the line that they use is quite different from what the petition actually says. I see a lot of people signing those petitions without reading or asking questions – obviously that’s how a lot of weird stuff gets on the ballot.

  • http://www.4wheeledlefty.com/ wheeler58

    One such ballot proposition that is bad, but is being lied about as
    being good, is one from SEIU-UHW. This proposed proposition would
    require that In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) providers (or
    caregivers) complete a 75 mandatory training program in order to be
    eligible to be allowed to work as IHSS attendants.

    For one thing,this ballot proposition is opposed by a large majority of IHSS
    consumers (seniors and disabled). It’s opposed because it’s very costly
    (an estimated $500 million), and this expense would be taken out of the
    IHSS budget. This would result in cutting the number of service hours
    that an IHSS consumer currently receives. This could very well result
    in disabled and seniors, served by this system, being forced into
    nursing homes because they would be left without enough hours of IHSS
    care to remain living independently in the community.

    Another thing that the leadership from SEIU-UHW refuses to take into
    consideration is the fact that over two thirds of IHSS providers are
    family members taking care of disabled and elderly parents, children,
    and siblings. Does the union actually think that it’s appropriate of
    them to get legislation passed that would make it mandatory for family
    members to take 75 hours of training to take care of loved ones?

    Ifyou care about the well-being of disabled people and seniors who depend
    on the IHSS system for their survival, do not sign this petition.

  • guest

    You want to leave the laws to the elected politicians, who (we know) are always honest.

  • guest

    Mr. Capitelli is writing this piece in an attempt to make it more
    difficult for Mr. Worthington et. al. to qualify a ballot measure
    pertaining to Berkeley City Council redistricting.

    But that already happened, so your conspiracy theory doesn’t make any sense.

    Since that has already happened and can’t be prevented in any way by an op-ed piece like this, isn’t it more likely Capitelli is simply concerned after hearing various reports that signature gatherers in the Berkeley area have been lying to voters about the content of the petitions they are trying to get people to sign?

  • guest

    Your special powers that allow you to see things that others don’t – or that simply don’t exist at all – are quite amazing. You should write to Marvel Comics and see if they’ll publish a series about you.

  • Peni Hall

    I agree we should read and understand issues before signing petitions. Unfortunately, many of the petition gatherers are not always knowledgeable or honest about the issue. A bigger problem is that ballot initiatives are written in a way that makes something awful sound good. Currently SEIU-UHW is circulating an initiative that would require 75 hours of mandatory training for IHSS (In Home Support Service) workers in order to continue working for their consumers. I understand that some workers may need this training, but I am perfectly able to hire and train my attendants, and, if more training is needed, it is available locally. It is hard enough to find good attendants, especially at the wage offered. It is unreasonable to expect a worker to take 75 hours of their time to get training that is not relevant to their job and for which they are not being paid. This proposal has been enacted in Washington state and has been a failure, with many workers not completing the training once they start. The consumer is left without their worker for those 75 hours and has to make do somehow. The cost of this program is estimated at $500 million for California which is coming from the money allocated for attendant services. This is a huge loss for us and our workers. Do not be deceived by this benevolent sounding initiative. It is a loss for consumers and caregivers and makes it much harder to live independently.

  • Sherry

    The Councilmember hits the nail on the head with several points he makes. What really resonates with me is the assurance by the petition-passer that by signing,”you’re not really supporting this idea, just the right of your fellow citizens to vote on this matter.” The devil, you say! It’s a corruption of democracy to ever sign your name to something you do not understand or believe in.

  • guest2

    Yeah, actually, I do. Most activists groups, left or right, are far less accountable to voters, and far less transparent. Politicians lie, but activists (left and right) lie a lot more.

  • Robert Beatty

    This is such great advice! I also strongly agree with this sentiment. Tell your friends that these petitions are primarily paid for by politicians bankrolling a pet project and most people gathering petitioners are paid a $1 per signature.

  • MissNDemocracy

    Let’s not throw out the baby w/ the bathwater. Some petitions are extremely important, some are merely worthy, some are not. Take the time to skim before signing. But don’t be sheeple, apathetic, closed, refusing to consider. What a sad life that would be, just what the far right wants.