Prop. 98 backers question opponent’s political role

The sparring over two rival eminent domain initiatives on the June ballot is starting to get nasty.

Voters will be asked to choose between two similar initiatives on the ballot this spring: Proposition 98, sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and Proposition 99, which is backed by the League of California Cities. Proposition 98 advocates charge that the League of California Homeowners is a faux grass-roots organization and is little more than a shill for the League of California Cities. LCH’s president, Ken Willis, also sits on the Upland City Council, which is a member of the League of California Cities.

The LCH, a not-for-profit consumer-information and assistance organization that directs its clients to contractors, real estate agents, and lenders, has recently come out against Proposition 98. The initiative’s opponents say it would restrict local governments’ ability to redevelop blighted areas and would eliminate state rent control laws.

Now, the group is in the crosshairs of Proposition 98 backers. Jon Coupal, attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, complained that having Willis’ signature on the ballot creates the illusion of property-owner support for Proposition 99.  
“The fact is that they don’t have real members,” he said. “They seem to be an organization representing the interest of government, not homeowners, and that strongly suggests that it is a shell organization.”

“I think that’s a hollow contention, to say the least,” Willis said. “If we feel like the action we take is commensurate with the goals and objectives of the association, then we feel we can act. … If members of the association happen to read that the league has a position on something and (wish to remove themselves from it), that’s fine. But I don’t expect any phone calls.”

Coupal noted that the LCH’s 1992 company bylaws prohibit it from intervening in any political campaigns “for or against any measure being submitted to the people to vote.”

But Willis said the LCH’s 15-year-old bylaws have since been amended. “I think that Mr. Coupal understands that not every bylaw amendment has to be sent to the secretary of state unless you change the purpose of your company,” he said.

The 2004 amended article reads that “no substantial part” of the LCH’s activities should be dedicated to influencing legislation. Willis said his company’s involvement in the Yes on 99 campaign takes no more than 3 or 4 percent of its regular activities.
“You won’t see us with mailers or an advertisement,” said Willis. “I’ve never been motivated to fly to Sacramento to testify. “We’ll write a letter and encourage members to write letters, but that doesn’t cost us anything.”

The League of California Homeowners assists more than 5,000 members who donate an average of $25 a year to keep the company running. Willis asserts that no part of that money has been spent on the campaign. In opposing Prop. 98, the LCH is joined by the AARP, the League of Women Voters, the California Teachers Association, and the Sierra Club. Proponents of 98 include the California Republican Taxpayers Association, the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, the National Tax Limitation Committee, and the Apartment Owner Association of California.

Proposition 98 aims to reform a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that expanded the power of eminent domain — a power of state and local government to appropriate a private property if there is a public need like highway expansion or running power lines — to include the government’s right to seize an owner’s property and resell the land to a private company if the project adds to the local tax base, like a strip mall or a golf course. But the proposition also terminates rent-control ordinances in cities such as Santa Monica, San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose.

Proposition 99 was created by the League of California Cities, an association of California city officials who work to influence policy that affects cities, to reform eminent domain without tackling any other issues, including rental control.

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