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Opponents of Santa Rosa rent control able to force referendum

Opponents of Santa Rosa’s rent control law have gathered enough signatures to force a citywide referendum on the controversial policy.

Sonoma County elections officials completed their lengthy verification process and concluded opponents submitted more than enough valid signatures of registered voters to place rent control on the ballot.

Of the 12,524 signatures submitted to the city by paid petition gatherers, 9,648 were valid, well above the 8,485 needed to force a referendum, according to the count tallied by the county registrar of voters.

There were various problems with 2,876 of the signatures, including people not registered to vote, living outside Santa Rosa or the signatures not matching those on the voter rolls.

But that left 1,163 more valid signatures than opponents needed to force a vote.

“They were obviously willing to spend a lot of money to gather way more signatures than they actually needed, apparently with the knowledge that a lot of those would be invalid,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.

The City Council will now have to decide at its Jan. 10 meeting how to proceed. It could just scrap the suspended law, but Coursey said that seems unlikely.

“I would be very surprised if we didn’t put this in front of the voters,” he said. “I think that’s the reasonable thing to do here.”

Santa Rosa City Clerk Daisy Gomez said the council will have the option of repealing the law, which has been suspended since the petition was filed in late September, or calling an election.

June is the next special election date available. Gomez said she is preparing a report analyzing the cost savings involved in having a rent control referendum share the ballot with a proposed cannabis tax.

The county took nearly three months to verify the petition because a hand count was required after random sampling showed it within a range requiring full verification.

The process was complicated by the fact that ?155 people, after they realized the petition was to block rent control from taking effect and not in favor of it, demanded their names be removed from the petition.

Several council members alleged that the petition gatherers - who were from out of the area and paid $5 or more per signature - intentionally misled people into signing the petition. The City Attorney’s Office vowed to investigate and hired a retired police lieutenant to look into the allegations. The investigation is ongoing.

The verification process took a back seat to the November election. After those results were certified, staff members turned to checking each signature on the petition against voter rolls, said Bill Rousseau, registrar of voters.

Coursey said he’s heard lots of stories of people having their rents increased or being evicted from their homes since the rent control law was blocked in September from taking effect. That window will now extend for a least another six months.

Some in the real estate industry blame the city for spooking landlords with below-market units into hiking rents or evicting tenants before rules for rent control and just cause for eviction can go into effect. But Coursey rejected that idea, suggesting the “scare tactics” of the real estate industry were just as likely to be responsible for such overreactions.

“We haven’t raised anybody’s rent,” Coursey said. “The landlords need to take responsibility for their own actions.”

He said he was confident that if voters consider the issue closely, they’ll support allowing rent control to go forward.

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

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