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How the City Clerk Verified a Petition That Halted the City Council’s Pot Ban

A team of workers in the City Clerk’s office far from Spring Street conducted the crucial exercise.

The Piper Technical Center lies in a warren of warehouses and buildings near Union Station, where the only source of noise greater the constant rush of traffic on the 101 freeway is the sound of helicopters taking off from a Los Angeles Police Department heliport.

It’s not exactly the kind of place you’d think would influence the fate of one of the most bitter and longstanding battles in the Los Angeles City Council. But for the past two and a half weeks, in a huge room on the third floor of the Technical Center, a team of temporary workers had been busy conducting an exercise that will eventually help determine whether or not hundreds of marijuana storefronts in LA remain in business.

The room, about half the size of a football field, is where Thomas Reindel, an administrator in the City Clerk’s office, led a complicated review process of a referendum petition aimed at overturning the City Council’s recent ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

On Monday, City Clerk June Lagmay announced that the petition has enough signatures—well above the required 27,425—to force a ballot measure on the ban during the upcoming City elections on March 5. And it was Reindel and his team that determined the petition’s success, effectively compelling the City Council to repeal its ban, call a special election within the next 110 to 140 days, or let the issue be decided by a referendum.

Reindel, who manages the City Clerk’s vote by mail as well as “public services” that include election candidacy issues, gave Patch an overview last week of the referendum petition review process, which had three parts.

The first part was to conduct an official count of the signatures that proponents of the petition, known as the Committee to Protect Patients & Neighborhoods, had claimed to have submitted to the City Council. Reindel’s team, which included workers paid by the hour but well versed in petition-related issues, counted a total of 49,021 signatures.

“The proponents claimed they had submitted only 49,020,” Reindel said, alluding to the efficiency with which the petitioners had evidently done their homework. “So we are only off by one—it was very good.”

The second part of the review process was to “build the petition in the petition processing system,” Reindel explained. This entailed classifying the signatures into more than 2,000 sections, based on the number of signatures in each of the petition’s booklets, which, in turn, contained a copy of the City Council’s “Gentle Ban” ordinance in both English and Spanish. (Each booklet contained lines for 40 signatures and relevant details about the signatories, such as their residential addresses.)

The third step was to conduct a random statistical sampling of the signatures through a computer system designed to manage petitions. The random sample, said Reindel, generated a number of signatures, which was 5 percent of all signatures submitted. These signatures were the ones reviewed.

Reindel and his team tracked down details of each voter in the sample to verify such things as whether he or she is a registered voter residing within the City of Los Angeles and whether a particular voter’s registration is active—that is, whether there's anything that legally prevents that voter from participating in the petition.

An important part of the verification process was to determine if each signature on the petition’s random sample matched the signature in the Los Angeles County voter registration system. The computer’s software system is “designed to detect signatures by voters who might have signed the petition twice,” Reindel explained.

Once the random sampling was completed, there were three possible outcomes, Reindel said. The first was to declare the petition as sufficient, as the City Clerk did Monday. But there was a second scenario in which the petition could have been declared insufficient because the sample turned up less than the required number of valid signatures. A third outcome would be one in which Reindel and his team encountered what he called a “gray area.” This scenario would have triggered a review of all the signatures in the entire petition.

“The gray area is very technical and very difficult to explain so that a layman would understand it,” Reindel said. In a nutshell, the petition was declared sufficient because the total number of signatures reviewed was 10 percent greater than the minimum number of (27,425) signatures turned up by the random sample, Reindel explained. If the total number of signatures reviewed had been 10 percent below the minimum number of signatures in the random sample, then the petition would clearly have failed.

And “if it’s anywhere between the 10 percent over or 10 percent under, then we would do a full review,” Reindel said, adding that he had 15 days by law to complete the random sampling after counting all the signatures. (There's no time limit in election law for counting signatures.) Had the petition fallen into the gray area, then Reindel and his team would have had an additional 30 days to finish the laborious task of reviewing every single signature.

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