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Opponents of Santa Rosa’s new rent control law appear to have submitted enough signatures to suspend the law and put the issue before voters.

A local property manager aligned with the California Apartment Association, which advocates for landlords statewide, turned in five boxes of petitions apparently bearing 12,543 signatures at City Hall Monday morning, Santa Rosa City Clerk Daisy Gomez said.

Petition gatherers needed to submit 8,450 signatures of registered voters by Thursday to force the City Council to either repeal the law or send it to a citywide vote.

“The referendum will allow our community to decide if they want rent control and allow us to have a community conversation rather than have a one-sided, failed policy forced on us by four people,” Keith Becker, president of DeDe’s Rentals, said in a statement.

Becker, whose company is one of the largest property management firms on the North Coast, said the city’s law passed with “little stakeholder input” from the real estate community.

That claim drew a sharp response from Councilman Chris Coursey, who noted the city had multiple well-attended public meetings over a year on the issue.

“This wasn’t a hand-picked stakeholder task force, which I know they wanted,” Coursey said. “This was a public process.”

Coursey said he has no problem with voters weighing in on such an important issue, but he questioned whether the way paid petition gatherers went about getting signatures, which he called “questionable” and “unethical.”

“I am worried that a year of work by the City Council and city staff and a year of input by the entire community has been upset and apparently has had a wrench thrown into the work by a single, or maybe two or three groups, who threw lot of money into getting their way,” Coursey said.

Passed Aug. 29, the new law, which capped rent increase at 3 percent per year for about 11,000 older apartments in the city, was set to go into effect Friday.

But the filing of the petition suspends the law, preventing it from taking effect until either the petition is found to be flawed or the voters approve rent control at the ballot box, said Interim City Attorney Teresa Striker.

Gomez said Cecilia Rosas, a Santa Rosa resident, delivered the petition shortly after 10 a.m. to her office. Rosas is a property manager at DeDe’s Rentals. Neither Becker nor Rosas could be reached for comment Monday.

The petition was also filed “in care of” Ashlee Titus, a partner at Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, LLP, which has offices in Sacramento and Santa Monica. The firm’s senior partner, Charles H. Bell, Jr., serves as general counsel to the California Republican Party.

Titus referred questions to the California Apartment Association, whose senior vice president for Northern California, Joshua Howard, could not be reached by press time Monday.

He issued the following statement:

“The California Apartment Association and a coalition of interested local property owners and other business groups believe this policy deserves to be put on hold so the public can fully understand the ordinance adopted by the Council and the people of Santa Rosa should decide if this is the housing policy they want for their community.”

Gomez said she reviewed the format and basic content of the petition to see if it met legal standards. She then delivered the forms to the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office for further review.

To be valid, the number of signatures needs to be confirmed, followed by a verification process conducted by the registrar.

The process of confirming the number of “raw signatures” is fairly straightforward, and involves the petition documents being sorted and tallied, Sonoma County Elections manager Deena Thompson-Stalder said.

Signatures will be counted if they appear to have the proper format of name, addresses and signature, Thompson-Stalder said. The registrar will perform this review within seven days of the petitions being delivered, she said.

Gomez said the format of the petition appeared fine and she delivered it to the registrar Monday afternoon.

The county will also deal with the 151 letters that the Gomez received by Monday morning from residents claiming gatherers misled them to believe the petition was in support of rent control.

If the petitioner is found to have met the “prima facie” review by the county, the implementation of the rent control law is suspended.

Then officials at the registrar’s office will verify whether the signatures are in fact valid. This is done by randomly sampling 500 signatures from the petition and confirming that their person’s name, address and signature match voter records, Thompson-Stalder said.

This process must be completed within 30 days of the date the petition was submitted to the election official.

If that hurdle is passed, the law remains suspended until it is either repealed by the City Council or is affirmed or rejected by a citywide referendum vote at a date set by the council.

Coursey said he is concerned that renters who felt a “sense of relief” in knowing their rents were capped by the moratorium and upcoming law will now be cast again into economic uncertainty.

“I know that stress is going to come back, and I worry that rents are going to go up,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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