- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- SIGNATURE HUNTERS: Save Price Canyon members Marcia Guthrie (left) and Susan Testa (right) are part of the volunteer team gathering signatures for the group’s ballot initiative, which seeks to preempt overdevelopment in Price Canyon.
One comes from city staff and has thousands of dollars behind it; the other is citizen created and volunteer driven. One is about generating revenue; the other is about preempting overdevelopment. One involves a $17,700 phone survey; the other involves supporters going door to door with pens and paper.
Though the differences between the two planned ballot measures are quite stark, both are looking for more than 50 percent of the same Pismo Beach voters to check “yes” on Nov. 4.
On one side, the city of Pismo Beach is seeking an extension of Measure C, a half-percent sales tax increase that raises revenues for infrastructure projects like sidewalk work, street paving, and drainage improvements.
Simultaneously, members of the local activist group Save Price Canyon (SPC) are collecting signatures for their home-cooked ballot initiative aimed at removing the specter of mega-development from the Price Canyon area.
It may only be April, but survey calls for Measure C and door-to-door signature gathering for the SPC initiative are both in full swing, affecting thousands of Pismo residents.
“I think voters are already paying attention,” said Sheila Blake, an SPC member who has posted on her wall a giant map tracking the groups’ signature-gathering progress. “It’s encouraging to see.”
Blake explained to New Times that SPC is using a group of 23—and growing—volunteer canvassers to walk down as many of the city’s streets as possible, collecting signatures and promoting the initiative as they go.
In addition to carrying copies of the initiative, signature sheets, FAQs, and other voter information, the canvassers are equipped with a carefully honed two-sentence pitch for the effort.
“We are collecting signatures for an initiative which would ensure that the City Council alone will not be able to approve high-density development in the Prince Canyon Area without a vote of the people of Pismo Beach,” it reads. “Once we acquire the needed signatures, this will be presented to the City Council for them to either accept this initiative or place it on the ballot.”
Blake said the group only had to obtain 777 signatures (15 percent of Pismo Beach’s registered voters) by May 1 in order to get the measure on the ballot, but they’re aiming for 1,000 signatures so they can send a message. Volunteers have been canvassing since March 12.
On a recent Tuesday evening, this New Times reporter and the staff photographer accompanied two SPC members, Marcia Guthrie and Susan Testa, as they patrolled a Pismo Beach neighborhood in search of signatures.
“Our record for the quickest signature was one gentleman who grabbed the sheet 10 seconds into our pitch, signed, and then called his neighbors and friends,” Guthrie said. “He told us to come back with a yard sign.”
That experience aside, Testa and Guthrie said the signature-gathering process has been slow, but worthwhile. Most residents have questions, and the interaction gives the activists a chance to discuss development issues with a wide swath of the Pismo populace.
Testa said that almost every person they’ve asked has been supportive, with the only hiccups being absent homeowners, unregistered voters, and the occasional aggressive dog.
Blake, Testa, and Guthrie told New Times that promoting the initiative does take a lot of their time, but they consider it a worthwhile investment: putting their beliefs into action after years of less-formal activism.
Although Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis said he’s aware of the SPC initiative, most attention at City Hall is turned toward Measure C, which Lewis said is a vital source of revenue for the city.
While Pismo Beach voters initially rejected the tax in 2006, they subsequently voted to pass Measure C in 2008, increasing the local sales tax from 7.25 to 7.75 percent. Since then, the measure has raised roughly $5.9 million for city infrastructure projects.
“The tax sunsets on March 31, 2015, and if the city wants to maintain its proactive street paving program and high attention to infrastructure projects, it must be renewed at a general election prior to this date,” Lewis wrote in a Feb. 18 staff report.
At that Feb. 18 Pismo Beach City Council meeting, the council unanimously approved a $17,700 public opinion phone survey to gauge voter support for renewing Measure C.
About a month later, that phone survey—conducted by Probolsky Research of Newport Beach—got underway.
“Though I can’t comment on specific results yet, the survey is in progress, and we’re very happy about our relationship with Pismo Beach,” said Adam Probolsky, chairman and CEO of the firm. “Policymakers ultimately make the decisions, but we help them understand what their constituents are thinking, and how that relates to the city and city services.”
Probolsky said his firm is employing as many as 12 interviewers who call specifically selected landlines and cell phones in Pismo Beach to conduct a 35-question, 16-minute survey. The firm is aiming to reach at least 300 likely voters to accrue a statistically significant sample size, and will then prepare an analytical report for the city.
Back in 2008, Measure C passed by a 56 percent (1,482 votes) to 44 percent (1,175 votes) margin.
“The point of the survey is to hear what our voters think,” Lewis told New Times. “We think we have been good stewards of the Measure C money.”
Ultimately, the City Council must decide by July whether or not to place Measure C on the ballot—though many locals consider its inclusion a foregone conclusion. Should the SPC measure garner sufficient signatures, the council can either adopt it or place it on the ballot.
Three seats on the council—currently held by Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, and council members Mary Ann Reiss and Kris Vardas—are also up for grabs on the same late-2014 ballot.
“Everyone is definitely looking to November,” Blake said.
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.