Community empowerment appears to have been the overriding theme during June's local elections. Los Angeles voters approved a new city charter that calls for area planning commissions, Pleasanton and Scotts Valley voters rejected separate city council-approved subdivisions, and Ventura voters defeated a redevelopment area backed by the City Council. Meanwhile, school bond proposals had mixed results, with bonds in Northern California generally doing better than those in Southern California. Passage of the new Los Angeles City Charter is the most significant local government development of the year anywhere in the country, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission and a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. Voters approved the new charter by a 60-to-40 ratio after both the appointed commission and the separate Elected Charter Reform Commission (the two had been rivals) backed the document. The new charter calls for creation of at least five area planning commissions and establishment of neighborhood councils. Supporters said the local bodies would allow citizens more input on development and other community issues. "I think it will have a dramatic impact on people's feelings about the land use process," Sonenshein said. "People won't have to go to as much trouble in order to be heard." Indeed, traveling across town and waiting through a giant agenda to provide testimony on a proposed variance discouraged average citizens, said David Diaz, policy analyst for the elected commission and an environmental planner at CSU, Northridge. "The meetings are going to be much more accessible," he said. The revised charter appears to give the five area commissions, which the mayor and City Council will appoint, authority over only minor land use issues, such as variances, conditional use permits and similar quasi-judicial matters. That is fine with Sonenshein. "It will not affect major projects that have citywide implications," he said. "It is not a regionalization of the Planning Commission. It is really a regionalization of the Board of Zoning Appeals." Besides the local planning commissions, the charter requires Mayor Richard Riordan to create the Office of Neighborhood Empowerment, name a general manager and select a seven-member commission, Sonenshein said. The goal is to complete criteria for appointments to neighborhood councils by July 1, 2000, the effective date for most provisions in the new charter. The neighborhood councils will be advisory only. However, Diaz noted, the new charter lets the City Council expand the mandatory powers of the area planning commissions and the neighborhood councils. "I view this as a major, historic victory for neighborhood groups, homeowner groups and environmental groups," Diaz said. Interestingly, proposals to expand the 15-member City Council to 21 or 25 members failed overwhelmingly at the polls. Each councilmember new represents about 235,000 constituents. The new charter's impact on the San Fernando Valley secession movement is unclear. The Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission has begun preliminary steps for a massive study on the proposed break up of the City of Los Angeles. The vote for charter reform confirms secessionists are headed in the right direction, contended Jeff Brain, president of Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment. But, he added, "We feel the charter didn't go nearly far enough to satisfy the hunger in the Valley for change." Valley VOTE advocates self-governing boroughs, elected neighborhood councils and changes to the tax structure to help business, Brain said. He predicted additional charter revisions may arise as city leaders attempt to stave off Valley secession, as well as fledgling secession movements in Wilmington, San Pedro, Westchester and Playa Del Rey. Diaz, however, called the charter reform a defeat for Valley VOTE. If voters rejected the new charter, it would have given secession a green light. Instead, the election proved the city can come together to do something meaningful, Diaz insisted. Sonenshein predicted implementation of the new charter will focus attention away from secession for a while. "We've never billed this as the answer to secession," Sonenshein said. "We asked a different question: Can the city be better governed?" Participants and observers agree implementation of the new charter is key, especially because the majority of city councilmembers openly opposed or were ambivalent about the new charter. Riordan, however, championed charter reform, partly because it expanded his authority. Growth opponents win In Pleasanton, in Alameda County, 60% of voters rejected an 89-unit subdivision. The election was a referendum on a rezoning and planned unit development agreement for 46 acres that the City Council approved early this year. The developer, the DeSilva Group, poured $350,000 into a campaign to approve the referendum, or about $10 per registered voter. The DeSilva Group sent every voter a 100-page packet with aerial photos and numerous reports. However, anti-growth sentiment runs strong in Pleasanton these days. Pleasanton's vote on Measure P might be a precursor to balloting in several East Bay cities this November and in March of 2000 on a broad growth-control initiative backed by the Citizens Alliance for Public Planning. The measure would require a public vote for any general plan amendment, rezoning, specific plan or development agreement involving 10 or more dwelling units. Backers have submitted signed initiatives in Pleasanton, Livermore, Danville and San Ramon. A larger subdivision in Scotts Valley fared no better during June balloting when 61% of voters in the Santa Cruz County town rejected referendums on a general plan amendment and specific plan amendment that would have allowed 145 houses on a portion of 180 acres. Voters defeated the subdivision for three reasons, according to Stephany Aguilar, a councilwoman who opposed the project. The Glenwood development, proposed by Keenan Land Co. of Palo Alto, would have harmed rare plant and animal species, impacted a groundwater recharge area and added more vehicles to an already congested road intersection, she charged. While voter turnout in most jurisdictions was in the 20% to 30% range, 60% of Scotts Valley voters participated in the June referendum. Community Development Director Laura Kuhn said a different project elsewhere in town — by Kaufman & Broad — has stirred public interest because it contains lots of 3,200 to 6,000 square. "People seem to be opposed to projects that have lots with less than 10,000 square feet," she said. That opposition evinced itself in the vote on the Glenwood project, which proposed lots of 6,000 to 20,000 square feet. Interestingly, the city had originally approved a 276-unit development and golf course on the Glenwood site. But the recession of the early 90s caused the project to fall apart, Kuhn said. Scotts Valley voters may face another referendum in the fall, this time regarding a 70-unit apartment complex. Redevelopment loses Voters in Ventura defeated a referendum on midtown redevelopment by a 57-43 ratio. The $53 million project would have focused on two aging boulevards lined with retail shops and offices, and a shopping mall that is undergoing a city-subsidized renovation. Redevelopment opponents raised fears about eminent domain, increased taxes and public debt. While the city countered those arguments, voters at the very least indicated they did not like the way the city handled the proposed redevelopment district. Allen St. James, a midtown Ventura merchant and member of Ventura Citizens Against Redevelopment Excess, said the vote was partly a reaction to corporate welfare. An existing downtown Ventura redevelopment district has subsidized a Century Theater and a Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream shop, he said. "It (redevelopment) is a perfect thing to use for slums or places that need renewing, but it's not what is needed in midtown Ventura," St. James said. Mixed bag for schools. Voters backed six school bond measures and defeated four others. The winners were: Union School District in San Jose ($92 million), Morgan Hill Unified School District ($72.5 million), Golden Valley Unified School District in Madera ($30 million), Orcutt Unified School District ($15 million), and Cloverdale School District ($4 million). The losers were: Vista Unified School District ($96 million), La Mesa-Spring Valley School District ($33 million), Santa Maria-Bonita School District ($33 million) and Folsom-Cordova Unified School District ($18 million). Voters in the Albany Unified School District approved a $120 annual parcel tax to fund additional school programs. Contacts: Raphael Sonenshein, Los Angeles Appointed Charter Reform Commission, (714) 278-3521. David Diaz, Los Angeles Elected Charter Reform Commission, (818) 677-2904. Jeff Brain, Valley VOTE, (818) 501-5862. Laura Kuhn, Scotts Valley Community Development Department, (831) 438-2324. Allen St. James, Ventura Citizens Against Redevelopment Excess, (805) 643-8454. Citizens Alliance for Public Planning: