Orange County commissioners Tuesday held off putting a pair of referendums to voters this fall that could have added two new seats to the six-member board, and made the citizen initiative process harder in some cases.
But a majority of them said voters should decide on the Nov. 4 ballot if all county races should be nonpartisan and subject to term limits.
The debate Tuesday was part of an ongoing war sparked over a paid sick-time referendum that was blocked from the 2012 ballot.
It has since pit tourism interests and a business-friendly commission — which wants to tighten that ballot process — against Democrats and activists who see it as a last avenue for change.
Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who faces a potentially tough re-election this fall, straddled both camps. Jacobs sided with a GOP-leaning board on putting a term-limit and a non-partisan race proposal to voters, but she vocally opposed making ballot access harder.
Jacobs said there are flaws in that initiative process, with deadlines and confusing language issues. But she said the county’s regular charter review process that starts next year was a better place to start fixing it.
“There’s a right way to do this, and this isn’t it,” Jacobs said of the larger plan pushed by Commissioner Fred Brummer.
Brummer had re-tailored his plan, he said, to make it harder for paid-signature gathering efforts, while making “truly volunteer” efforts the same level of difficulty or easier. That revised plan still was defeated in a 6-1 vote with only the author backing it.
However, commissioners Brummer, Scott Boyd, Pete Clarke and Ted Edwards revived two parts of Brummer’s plan. They want to quickly bring back possible voter referendums that would change the deadlines on submitting ballot measures, and bar any that deal with workplace issues or taxes that are at odds with state law.
“This is not over,” said civil-rights activist and attorney Mary Meeks.
The other unsettled issue is an expanded board. Commissioners voted 5-1 vote to wait until a voting-rights lawsuit is over before deciding whether to put that to voters.
Proponents said expanding it gives Latinos a better shot at winning a seat, while critics say that’s questionable.
There are no Hispanics on the board, and a civil-rights group is suing the county for crafting district borders that it says dilutes Latino voting strength.
That federal trial starts Monday.
On nonpartisan races, Jacobs and other Republicans argued that most local issues are above party differences, and taking them out of that fray lures more independent turnout. Democratic opponents say party affiliations give voters more information, and moving races from August primaries to November would more effectively engage unaffiliated voters.
On term limits, Brummer wanted to make the elected sheriff, election supervisor, comptroller, clerk, property appraiser and tax collector subject to the same two, four-year terms that commissioners and the mayor face. But the board watered down his plan, and will ask voters whether to apply four, four-year term limits, or a cap of 16 years in office.
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