Closer scrutiny ordered for Santa Rosa’s anti-rent control petition

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Sonoma County elections officials say they will need to conduct a full review of the signatures gathered in the petition drive to overturn Santa Rosa’s new rent control law, a delay that will leave the contentious issue in limbo through late December.

After initially concluding Oct. 14 that opponents submitted enough valid signatures to force a referendum on rent control, the Registrar of Voters now says after further review that it’s too close to call and a full hand count is required.

“We made an error,” Bill Rousseau, the county clerk and registrar of voters, said Tuesday. “It was our error and we caught it, and the city of Santa Rosa caught it as well.”

The reversal caps nearly two weeks of back-and-forth discussions between city and county officials over whether the 12,524 signatures submitted by paid petition gatherers funded by real estate industry interests were sufficient to force the City Council to either repeal the law or send the issue to voters.

If enough signatures are validated, the delay will hand the decision about whether to repeal the rent control law to a new City Council. That means the Nov. 8 vote still could affect the city’s rent control law, which remains suspended pending the validation process and potential referendum.

The city received five boxes of petitions on Sept. 26, and, lacking the staff or expertise to count them, asked the county registrar for help.

In addition to the boxes, the city turned over to elections officials letters from 151 people who requested their names be removed from the petition, most of whom claimed they were duped into signing the petition by gatherers who mischaracterized the effort.

Those 151 people proved to be a curve ball for elections officials.

“This is the first time people had withdrawn their names from a petition, at least in these numbers,” Rousseau said.

The withdrawal requests were tricky because elections officials at that stage weren’t counting every signature, but doing a statistical analysis meant to predict if enough valid signatures had been gathered. Opponents need 8,485 valid signatures on their petition to force an election on rent control.

Initially, that seemed a no-brainer. Opponents had submitted 4,039 more signatures than needed.

But a closer look at 501 randomly selected signatures revealed problems. Elections workers found 127 signatures that didn’t pass muster: 46 listed addresses out of the district, 41 were not registered voters, 34 were registered at different addresses, four could not be identified and two were registered late.

That left 374 of the 501 signatures as valid, or just under 75 percent, according to data provided to the city by deputy clerk Elizabeth Acosta. Stated differently, the random sample had an error rate of just over 25 percent.

Elections officials commonly use such statistical techniques to quickly estimate whether petitions have enough valid signatures.

When the 74.65 percent “sufficiency rate” was multiplied by the total signatures – minus the 151 signatures of people who asked to be removed – the analysis estimated there were likely 9,236 valid signatures in the batch.

That’s 751 more than necessary to force the referendum. But it was low enough to trigger a full hand count.

The problem was it took the county to make that determination.

Its first try yielded 9,242 valid signatures. The second try — which neglected to remove the 151 names from the total signatures — estimated 9,355 valid signatures. Officials initially determined that was barely sufficient — by 21 signatures — to avoid a lengthy hand count.

But after City Clerk Daisy Gomez and other city officials asked for clarification, the county revised its calculation and came up with a final figure of 9,236 signatures, necessitating the line-by-line count.

Gomez, as the city’s chief elections official, is the one who will have to certify that the petition does or does not meet the requirements under state law for a referendum petition. “This is a unique situation,” she said. “They’ve never had 151 signers request to be withdrawn from a petition before.”

Councilman Chris Coursey said he’s not surprised at the high number of invalid signatures on the petition.

“The anecdotal reports we had were that the petition gatherers weren’t very careful in the way they were going about their business,” he said.

Councilman Gary Wysocky, who maintains he personally heard petition gatherers misrepresenting the effort as supporting rent control, said he’s gratified people who were misled stepped forward to withdraw their names.

“If those people hadn’t have contacted the City Clerk, we wouldn’t be here, would we?” he said. “It still troubles me, the tactics that this firm used to get these signatures. My guess is there are more out there who unwittingly signed.”

The city hired a retired police lieutenant, Paul Henry, to investigate claims that signature gatherers misrepresented the purpose of the petition, which is a crime under state elections law.

City Manager Sean McGlynn said there is no update on that investigation.

Because county election staff will be very busy in the weeks following an election that promises a high turnout, Rousseau said his staff will likely need until Dec. 22 — the entire 60 days allowed by state law — to finish the signature count.

The upside of the process is that instead of an estimate, a full count will determine the precise number of valid signatures submitted.

“I think it has turned out for the best,” Rousseau said.

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