Voter initiatives permit voters to adopt a change in the law at the ballot box. In a recent decision in City of Oxnard v. Starr (2d Civ. No. B314601), the Court of Appeal set forth some limits on the initiative power.

In November 2020, the voters of the City of Oxnard passed two initiatives. Measure M modified the City’s rules for compliance with the Brown Act, by restricting City Council meeting times, establishing standards for public comment, and mandating certain meeting procedures, among other things. Measure N amended an earlier measure that set a general tax, to provide that the tax would sunset if the City failed to maintain roads according to certain standards.

The City sued arguing that both measures were invalid.  First, the City argued that Measure M improperly intruded into a subject exclusively delegated by the Brown Act to the City Council. Second, the City asserted that the electorate lacked the power to enact both measures because they were an invalid attempt to dictate the City’s administration of existing municipal programs.  As the Court of Appeal confirmed, voters can propose measures that constitute legislative acts but not administrative acts. But the court also recognized that the “difference between legislative and administrative acts is easy to say in the abstract, but it can be difficult to apply in the concrete.”

The Court upheld Measure M. It found that the City’s electorate could establish “standards that allow greater access” to public meetings than those required under the Brown Act.  The Court held that the voters could set those higher standards via initiative, as state law does not reserve the power to set those standards for local legislative bodies.

The Court struck down Measure N, holding that it improperly dictated the City’s administration of an existing municipal program.  The Court found that Measure N effectively forced the City to spend Measure O general tax revenue on road repair by tethering the continuation of the tax to road quality. While Measure N did not dictate how the City must spend the general tax revenue funds and permitted the City to let the tax sunset rather than meet certain road standards, the Court found the Measure invalid.

Notably, the Court of Appeal also concluded that the City was a “proper plaintiff” in a challenge to a measure approved by its voters, and the measure’s proponent was a “proper defendant” even after the election. The proponent had relied on Perry v. Brown (2011) 52 Cal.4th 1116, challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, for the proposition that the government generally has a duty to defend measures enacted by the voters. The Court of Appeal rejected that proposition, holding that any local government may challenge the validity of measures that its constituents have adopted – so long as the local government is directly affected.

Note that a petition for rehearing is pending, and we will provide further updates on this litigation, as appropriate.

If you have any questions about the case or other election-related matters, please contact your RPLG attorney or Andrew Shen.