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Santa Monica Airport Referendum Steeped in Controversy

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By Daniel Larios
Staff Writer

May 1 , 2014 -- Proponents of placing a measure on the ballot to keep the Santa Monica Airport open have hired a firm to gather signatures that has been embroiled in controversy.

“Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions, Sponsored and Major Funding by Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association” reportedly paid $10,000 to hire Arno Petition Consultants Inc., also known as Arno Political Consultants, according to campaign finance disclosure documents filed with the Santa Monica City Clerk's Office.

The petition drive management firm based in Carlsbad -- which bills itself as the top political consultant firm in the country -- has been the subject of controversy over allegations of petition fraud.

They include a 2007 petition to place a Republican-backed Electoral College measure on the ballot in California and a 2005 petition to reverse same-sex marriage legalization in Massachusetts, according to various media reports.

The San Jose Mercury News reported on November 2, 2007 that Arno Political Consultants was hired to gather signatures for a petition to place a measure on the ballot that "would change the way California allocates its electoral votes in such a way that the Republican presidential candidate would gain as many as 20 more votes on the ballot." 

The news story alleged that "signature gatherers working for Arno Political Consultants told voters they were signing a petition to stop Iraq war funding, one for children's hospital care and another barring election officials from releasing election results early."

The New York Times also covered the story, as well as the Los Angeles Downtown News, adding that "signature gatherers ask(ed) homeless people on the city’s notorious Skid Row for their signatures to help qualify the electoral vote initiative and three others, as well as asking them to fill out voter registration cards.

“In exchange, the paper reported, homeless people and those in nearby shelters were given Snickers bars, instant noodles and other snack foods."

The Boston Globe reported October 19, 2005 that "voters said they were asked to sign a ballot question about the sale of wine in grocery stores and were then told to sign a second sheet of paper without being told it was the initiative to ban same-sex marriage. In some cases they said they were told the second sheet was a backup sheet for the wine question."

The article stated that Arno Political Consultants was "hired by supporters of the ballot question, which would define marriage as the union of a man and woman, to help collect signatures."

The firm – which boasts more than 120 million signatures to qualify nearly 500 ballot initiatives in 20 states -- has denied any wrongdoing in the past.

Arno Political Consulting could not be reached for comment.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a Maryland-based nonprofit group that advocates for policies favorable to aviation, was listed as the lone contributor to the ballot measure’s campaign committee, according to the campaign disclosure forms.

The AOPA has donated $20,000 to the pro-airport group, the documents say.

"We're happy to support a citizens’ campaign that places the question of redeveloping 227 acres of Santa Monica public land in front of the voters rather than leaving it to politicians and special interests," said Steve Hedges, director of media relations for the AOPA.

Supporters of the initiative – who must gather the signatures of 9,200 registered voters -- say they oppose changes to the airport because the City, which hopes to shut down at least part of the 5,000-foot runway as early as 2015, is working on behalf of land developers who want to build on the property.

Echoing opponents of the proposed 765,000-square-foot Bergamot Transit project, supporters of the ballot initiative have argued that residents should have the right to vote on major land use issues such as the future of Santa Monica Airport.

But opponents of the measure don’t buy it.

"I think this is a cynical use of the Residocracy model used by big business interest," said John Fairweather, citing the recent referendum campaign by to oppose the Bergamot Transit project. "It's a dangerous development and the community has to actively oppose it."

Fairweather believes the campaign is being conducted by outside interests “interfering in local politics.”

"It doesn't sound like concerned residents to me,” he said. “It's a con. It’s masquerading the issue as an issue of development when it has nothing to do with it.

“All in all, it's just an attempt to deceive the electorate and work on the very real fear of out of control development in this city and to use this fear as leverage."

Two days after the City Council voted unanimously in favor of taking steps to close down Santa Monica Airport, supporters of the century-old airfield filed paperwork with the City Clerk's office to put an initiative on the November ballot. The proposed initiative would amend the City's Charter to require voter approval before the City can close any part of the airport.

If the measure is approved, it would require voters to approve any and all changes to the property. (“Ballot Initiative to Preserve Santa Monica Airport Moves Forward,” April 8, 2014)

Residents on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have shared experiences with paid petition gatherers.

They say petition gatherers are allegedly telling signers that the petition calls for a ban on large airplanes, stop the airport from being developed, and that if people signed, that the gatherer would make money to eat that night.

"The signature gatherers are getting around $4.50 a signature and are saying pretty much anything to get signatures." Fairweather said. 

"I don't blame them because they're just trying to earn some money. It's depressing that this is how they're making it."

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