Emotion's power pilots referendums

You know people are ticked off when they force city government to hold a referendum. They're really mad when they force another one six months later.

``East Cupertino should secede,'' grumbled resident John Callahan. ``Take Highway 85 as the boundary. All you parasites take the other side.''

Welcome to Cupertino civic involvement -- circa 2006.

On Tuesday night, Cupertino's City Council faces a long night and lots of emotion over rezoning commercial land to residential use. Confronted with a 5,000-signature petition gathered in a mere month, the council must decide when to put the issue on the ballot.

``I don't think people are angry, but they are frustrated with the City Council,'' said Patty Chi, a referendum drive leader. Up until recently, Chi wasn't really active in local government. Now she is among those named in a lawsuit seeking to block the referendum.

Take Two

As with many controversies in Cupertino, this one is about land use, housing, growth and schools. Unhappy residents forced a referendum over density and height restrictions last November. It was defeated.

This spring, a new group drafted two referendums to overturn council decisions allowing residential building at Vallco Fashion Park and on vacant Hewlett-Packard land.

This latest effort appears to be the result of cumulative perception and past decisions, observed Councilman Patrick Kwok, who supports listening to residents by slowing down for a little while. Over a period of months, the council has tentatively approved almost 1,000 units of housing, mainly in the Vallco area.

So when the council approved zoning changes for two projects in the space of two months, Chi took notice. So did others.

Ironically, it was the defeated referendum that helped educate her and others, Chi said. ``I paid attention this time. I felt it was too much, too fast.''

With 100 volunteers gathering signatures, her group qualified them for the November ballot . . . it's just not clear which November ballot. The referendums' proponents want the issue decided in the 2007 municipal election. That would effectively create an 18-month moratorium on the projects. The developer wants the matter settled sooner -- in a special election this November.

Direct Democracy 101

I could be could be wonky and analytical in discussing the ins and outs of this referendum drive and previous ones, but really, it all comes down to emotions.

``People asked me why they don't respect us?'' Chi said, after the council debated setting the referendums for 2006. The petition had asked for a 2007 vote. ``I said `I'm sorry I don't control what happens.' We tried to tell the city council, please respect the petition, but it doesn't work.''

Mayor Richard Lowenthal, who has listened to thousands of hours of residents' concerns, sometimes in people's homes, doesn't like accusations that he and other council members are ``in the pocket of the developers.'' Still, he understands.

``People are frustrated because we're not making popular decisions,'' he said. And he hasn't figured out an effective way to explain why the city is going against popular opinion.

Neither Lowenthal nor Kwok think referendums are a good way to govern. But they're necessary sometimes as a vital and democratic way for concerned citizens to more directly instruct their government.

Last week, with one council member absent, the council split. Tuesday, the full council will decide when the referendum will take place.

Will the outcome be the absolute best for Cupertino when all is said and done? There are no guarantees. But the process will be what people want. That's the power of emotion.

By L.A. Chung
Mercury News
Sat, Jun. 03, 2006