A rental inspection program that was a feather in the cap for outgoing members of the previous SLO City Council in December 2016, was officially repealed by their successors April 20, a month after being served with a petition signed by 15 percent of the SLO electorate.
That petition, containing language for a repeal and replace ordinance, is the cause of a planned Aug. 22 special election, with only one item, set to cost the City some $160,000 to carry out.
After some debate over wording on May 16, the approved ballot question will ask: “Shall an ordinance be adopted to replace former Chapter 15.10 of the San Luis Obispo Municipal Code, entitled ‘Rental Housing Inspection’ (repealed by City Council Ordinance 1632, effective April 20, 2017), with new Chapter 15.10 to be entitled ‘Non- Discrimination in Housing?’”
Even the slight change in wording from the original initiative, which emphasized that it was to repeal the ordinance, drew condemnation from long time thorns in the side of City Government, SLO-based attorney, Stew Jenkins, and political activist and resident, Kevin Rice.
And their involvement warrants some explanation.
Five years ago Jenkins was seen as something of a hero to advocates for the homeless living inside SLO City limits. A lawsuit filed in conjunction with another lawyer, Saro Rizzo, resulted in a court ordered payout of $133,880 and what the pair said they really wanted all along — the dismissal of 99 criminal citations for people living and sleeping in their vehicles on public streets.
In total it was estimated that settling the lawsuit and paying for their own fees cost the City more than $270,000. That did not include staff time in repealing and later replacing the ordinance governing the citations.
All that was another political cycle ago, and while many of the players have changed, déjà vu is in the air for longtime Council watchers. Jenkins and Rizzo are again moving in a pincer action to change City policy by legal fiat, making a little money in the process (at least on Rizzo’s end), as well as costing the municipality for its resistance.
This time the City staff and the SLO City Council say they don’t believe the long-term impacts will benefit low-income residents despite the anti-discrimination phrasing of the petition circulated by Jenkins along with contractor Dan Knight and former SLO City Councilman Dan Carpenter.
Although the issues are technically separate, the subject matter, and players involved are very much interconnected.
In April, the City agreed to settle, for an as-yet-undisclosed amount, a lawsuit claiming the rental inspection program violated equal protection rights and the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Rizzo represented “The San Luis Obispo Business and Property Owners Association” or SLOBPOA, Steve and Janine Barasch, Matt and Jean Kokkonen and Rice , who was a late addition in the suit against the City.
Steve Barasch, twice a SLO Mayoral candidate, and once the driving force behind the SLOBPOA, confirmed for the SLO City News the settlement, saying, “We got everything we wanted, fees, everything.”
Interestingly enough things have changed for two of the players in the petition and lawsuit drama in the time it took to play out. They’ve retreated from the public eye after their initial success.
Barasch, a local architect and landlord aside from work with the property owners association, took time away from local politics after the passing of his wife, Janine, in January.
Meanwhile, Carpenter can still be seen around Downtown SLO, where his family owns property, but he’s returned to the life of a private citizen after losing his bid to move from the SLO City Council to the SLO County Board of Supervisors in the last election. While saying nothing specifically for attribution to the SLO City News, he does seem much happier post politics.
Whatever the intentions of its backers and signers, the petition, and subsequent election is already causing long-term ripple effects. Primarily that stems from a “lock box” proposal, to prevent the Council from ever again enacting such an inspection ordinance as the one already repealed, but the Council is worried what other loopholes lay in waiting.
“This issue has very little to do with the inspection ordinance and everything to do with the nondiscrimination policy,” SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon said on May 16, as members of the Council played a proverbial game of “hot potato” with which two of them would be responsible on the committee for drafting an argument against the ballot language. The ad-hoc committee would be dissolved after the drafting.
The mayor said her ‘plate was full’ at the moment, as well as explaining that she did not profess any particular expertise in the matter at hand. While she threw it out to Councilman Aaron Gomez as an, “enrichment opportunity,” Gomez accepted only with the understanding that the drafting seemed like a task no one else but Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson volunteered to share.
He said it seemed better for both a longer serving member and a rookie from the last election to work together, as the ordinance had been an issue in the campaign.
Christianson also made reasoning plain in offering up a motion for Council to move forward.
“I’m more inclined to trust our City Attorney and her long experience in municipal law than I am the folks who brought this forward to begin with,” said Christianson, referring to the assurances from Jenkins that no loopholes or lawsuits would result from the ordinance if passed by voters.
The Council voted 5-0 for the item to be placed on the ballot as laid out in the staff report, as well as appointing Christianson and Gomez to draft the opposition argument. That task needed to be completed by 5 p.m. on May 30, necessitating a special 9-10 a.m. meeting for the whole Council to review and approve their efforts.
In the meantime however, they were allowed to call upon whomever they deemed necessary, to aid in the drafting process. But they cannot use up any City resources or staff time, including City Attorney Christine Dietrick, to assist with drafting the City’s ballot argument. Dietrick is already responsible for writing an “impartial analysis” as part of the ballot package.
Contacted mid-week in the midst of this lengthy Council homework assignment, Gomez said, “It is going well. I can say that it’s something I’m excited to present at our meeting.”
As excited as he can be under the circumstances at any rate, he added, “Our argument will present why the proposal is such a detriment to the community — nondiscrimination sounds great, but law is all about nuances.”
He added that, “The attacks on existing non-discrimination language, which we already have as a matter of State Law and our own policies, leave matters open to interpretation by lawyers. I don’t see that as an advantage. Personally, it seems like this group took and example of what they saw as City overreach and responded with a vast overreach of their own.”
Dietrick’s advice to Council, and the Christianson-Gomez response set to be signed by Council, reflect the view that rent control in mobile home parks, as well as other kinds of what could be termed “positive discrimination” that promote housing for low income people, will be either overturned or riddled with loopholes ripe for lawsuits that could put decades of affordable housing progress at risk.
After all the arguments and rebuttals are submitted, ballots will be sent out by mail from the SLO County Clerk-Recorder’s Office starting July 24. Voters will then have until Aug. 22 to postmark their ballots or drop them off at County Clerk’s office inside the County Government Center on Monterey St.
In the meantime, Jenkins is reportedly following up with an old adversary, former SLO City Councilman Andrew Carter, who left the City in 2013 to become the city administrator for the tiny City of Guadalupe in Northern Santa Barbara County, just after the ruling around homelessness in vehicles.
Santa Barbara-based outlet Noozhawk, reported on May 9 that Jenkins is threatening Guadalupe, a city of 7,080 residents, with legal action over a loophole in its legal code. He claims that Guadalupe voters had repealed the annual inspections when they adopted Measure W, which Noozhawk noted was, “one of three approved in 2014 to keep the city solvent.”
Jenkins told the City, “Measure W adopted a new Chapter 5 to impose a general city business tax without any invasive inspection requirements.”
Back in SLO, Councilman Gomez said, “I’m not sure what the intention of the drafters of the petition was, but the ‘lockbox idea’ could have been done without such broad language that adds needless complexity. I’m not sure what that’s all about. I do know that every time I’ve asked Mr. Jenkins one-on-one if he would interpret the language in a way that the City could be sued, he said, ‘No one would do that.’
“I trust our [the City’s] Attorney more.”
The SLO City News attempted repeatedly to contact Jenkins for comments over the past month but he did not respond.
- By Camas Frank