It's been impossible this summer to shop, dine or even walk in Livermore without being badgered to sign a petition.
Very aggressive signature-gatherers are still everywhere, and the most recent campaign is to get Livermore voters to sign a referendum petition to, according to one signature-gatherer, "get a bigger park downtown."
Just a few months ago, an initiative petition was circulated by Citizens for a Livermore Central Park, led by key members from Better Livermore and the well-funded PAC Friends of Livermore. Enough signatures were collected to put an alternative proposal for downtown, the "Central Park Plan," on the ballot.
Signatures for a referendum are currently being collected by a new group called Protect the Central Park Vote, which is, for the most part, led by the same people behind Citizens for a Livermore Central Park, Better Livermore and Friends of Livermore. They want to bring a referendum to voters to halt development of a hotel and basically overturn the city-approved plan for downtown.
To quote Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.
Last year, the same group of people using the name Vibrant Livermore gathered enough signatures for a referendum on the City Council's adopted downtown plan. Instead of delaying the project, the council voted to reverse its previously adopted version and made changes based on the referendum, such as the height of the hotel. This plan was approved earlier this year.
But height of the hotel wasn't the point of the 2018 referendum and the group organizers did not get all that they wanted. Therefore, we have yet another referendum and more signature-gatherers.
Regardless of what the signature-gatherer was told to say, the newest referendum is not about a bigger park.
This referendum is about placement of a new hotel in downtown, on the east side of South Livermore Avenue or the west side.
On the east side, which is where the city's approved plan has it, it would go next to the Bankhead Theater, where it has been envisioned in the Downtown Specific Plan since 2004. If it is located on the west side, it would leave space next to the Bankhead for a large, regional performing arts theater at some point in the future, which we believe is a goal of a predominant member and major funder of the aforementioned groups -- Joan Seppala, who also owns the Independent newspaper.
The downtown initiative, which qualified for the ballot, is to get the group's alternative "Central Park Plan" before the voters. (Keep in mind, though, that the "Central Park Plan" is more of an idea at this stage, as it has gone through no public input or hearings during its creation, and there has been no traffic or financial analysis.)
The Central Park Plan concept is different from the city's formal plan in a few ways, but most notably that the hotel is moved from the east side to the west side of South Livermore Avenue and a three-story parking garage is drawn in next to the Bankhead. Central Park advocates also want to reduce the number and size of the housing units, making them 84 "micro-units" as opposed to 130 various-sized units for diverse income levels.
According to Protect the Central Park Vote representative Tamara Reus, the Central Park Plan calls for "a black box theater, with flexible seating, that can accommodate small and mid-sized groups, with a maximum square footage of 30,000 square feet. It may include, as ancillary uses, a restaurant, meeting rooms, retail, office space, educational and cultural uses."
To put this in perspective, the Bankhead Theater is 34,000 square feet.
The main goal with the newest referendum is to stop progress on the hotel. The day after the City Council sealed a development agreement with a hotelier to build a hotel on the east side, the Protect the Central Park Vote group started the process of collecting signatures from registered local voters to qualify for a referendum on the development agreement. According to Reus, this was necessary "to protect the voting process and ensure that the vote is not annulled by the council's decision to move forward with its plan while the initiative is pending."
If the referendum petition is successful and qualifies for the ballot, it will delay construction of the hotel even further and it will likely appear on a ballot alongside the initiative measure so residents could vote on each downtown proposal.
Two referendums and an initiative led by a group of individuals representing Friends of Livermore / Vibrant Livermore / Better Livermore / Citizens for a Central Park / Protect the Central Park Vote?
Confused? That might be the point.
The confusion is perpetuated by the spin being placed on the ideas of the Central Park advocates and furthered by ads paid for by Protect the Central Park Vote and by stories in the Independent.
Political spin is not a new thing. It plays on emotion and shows only the side it wants. It's expected with government relations consultants, public relations firms and lobby groups. But it's disheartening to see it in a local newspaper.
Ads are fair game; whoever is paying for an ad can say whatever they want, for the most part, and leave out what they want. However, considering the likely source of funding for said ads (Friends of Livermore, Better Livermore, etc.), one might surmise there is little, if any, actual money being paid. Opposing groups would most likely not be given any discounts.
Then there is the opinion under the guise of news.
For example, a recent front-page headline read, "Referendum launched to protect Livermore voters' right to choose." This headline interjects opinion and emotion into what appears to be a news story because of the placement on the front page. While this would be appropriate on an Editorial page, on the front page it goes against journalistic practices and ethics.
To sum this up, if 10% of registered Livermore voters -- 5,269 -- sign this petition, a referendum will be placed on the November 2020 ballot to overturn the plan for Livermore's downtown that a group of citizens, community leaders and business owners spent over two years creating and will undermine a specific plan that has been in place since 2004 and further delay a well-supported, approved project. It will also likely prompt dueling downtown plans on the ballot, creating even more confusion and strife.
The signature gatherers are paid per signature, with funding from Protect the Central Park Vote. There is nothing illegal or even unethical about having people paid per signature, but they are not unbiased as their goal is to get Livermore residents to sign so they are paid.
Think twice before signing. Ask questions of the signature-gatherers before adding your name to their petition. Do your own research. Know your sources, and their possible agendas. And if you have already signed and are now having "signature remorse," you can rescind your signature with a written request for the withdrawal with Livermore's city clerk.