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Santa Monica Referendum Organizers to Hire Professional Signature Gatherers

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By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

Editor's note: An original version of this article said that Santa Monica's neighborhood groups may donate money to the referendum drive. While individual members of the groups have donated in a personal capacity, the neighborhood groups are barred by law from donating money.

February 25, 2014 -- With exactly two weeks to go to collect the signatures required to put the recently-approved Bergamot Transit Village on the November ballot, opponents of the development will likely hire professional signature gatherers.

The decision comes at the end of the second weekend in the 30-day period that opponents of the 765,000 square foot project have had to gather signatures since the City Council officially approved the development on February 11 in a 4-to-3 vote. ("Santa Monica City Council Narrowly Approves Bergamot Transit Village," February 5)

“We've been looking into (hiring signature gatherers),” said Armen Melkonians, the founder of Residocracy.org, the online group spearheading the effort. “It's probably going to happen.”

Melkonians, a former City Council candidate and three year resident, said that the decision was not a reflection of how many -- or how few -- signatures that unpaid volunteers have gathered since February 12.

“The official numbers aren't in,” said Melkonians. “We're confident that we're getting there.”

Opponents of the Bergamot Transit Village have 30 days to collect about 6,100 unique signatures from registered Santa Monica voters.

While The Lookout was unable to find any volunteers over the course of several hours on the first Saturday after the referendum launched, this past weekend activists advertised a number of “signing parties” and other efforts to get signatures. (“A Slow Start to Santa Monica’s Recent Referendum Effort,” February 19)

“We're delighted with the outpouring of residents who have joined our citywide referendum movement,” said Kate Bransfield, a local real estate agent and Residocracy supporter.

“We are about two weeks in and we are over half-way to our goal,” she said.

The goal to which she was referring, Bransfield said, was the 6,100 signatures required.

While 6,100 signatures -- about 10 percent of the registered voters in Santa Monica -- would qualify the referendum for the November ballot, local experts in the referendum process have said that volunteers should expect to gather from 8,000 to 9,000 signatures to account for duplicates and other irregularities.

That’s achievable with hired signature-gatherers, said former Santa Monica mayor Mike Feinstein, himself a veteran of the referendum process.

“From day one, I've been of the opinion that it's acceptable, desirable and strategic to pay people to ensure that these petitions are placed in front of residents who then can make up their own minds whether to sign,” said Feinstein, who helped successfully qualify a referendum in 1993 that put Santa Monica’s Civic Center Plan to the voters.

“There's nothing wrong with paying people to do this because most residents have day jobs and can't be in front of a market all day,” he said.

It’s now a question of paying for the signature-gatherers.

According to campaign disclosure forms filed with the City Clerk’s office Monday, Residocracy.org has raised $7,412 between February 12 and February 16.

The lion’s share -- more than $5,000 -- came from Melkonians himself and has already been spent, according to the documents, on printing petitions and renting a room for a referendum rally.

The remainder, about $2,000, was collected in increments of less than $100 in cash.

That’s not enough to pay for professional signature gatherers, but more money has been donated since this first reporting period ended on February 16.

“The money is seeming to be pouring in,” Melkonians said, though he did not specify from where.

It’s likely that the referendum drive will receive financial report from at least some of its allies, including Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), one of the city’s most powerful political organizations.

SMRR’s leadership -- which backed the referendum at the urging of former mayor Denny Zane -- voted to commit up to $2,500 of its money to the referendum drive, but that doesn’t show up on the campaign finance disclosure form for the first reporting period. (“SMRR, Neighborhood Groups Rally for Anti-Development Referendum,” February 14)

Nor do any donations from Residocracy’s other allies like the anti-development group Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City or individual residents mobilized by Santa Monica’s seven neighborhood groups.

The second reporting period covers February 17 through March 2 and Melkonians will have to report donations and expenses during that period five days before the signatures are due.

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