Thursday, August 2, 2012

Merced Referendum Puts the Fear of Justice into Mayor Thurston and Realtor Cronies

By Dean Preston

Merced Mayor Stan Thurston and his cronies were apparently so concerned about tenants at City Hall last week that they called in the riot police to intimidate our members who have testified peacefully for over a year at city council hearings. The show of force was offensive and a waste of taxpayer money. While their fear of violence is misplaced, their fear of a united and empowered group of tenants is not. Thurston and his cronies know that they can only continue to wield power if they silence and intimidate renters who make up the overwhelming majority of the residents of Merced.

The Merced County Registrar has determined that our referendum lacked sufficient signatures to overturn the City of Merced’s recent decision to repeal the City’s Just Cause for Eviction law. We are seeking more information from the Registrar about how this determination was reached. Regardless, we have emerged from this fight more determined than ever to protect renters in Merced and across the Central Valley.

For those who haven’t been following the developments in Merced, here’s some background. In November 2011, the Merced City Council made history by passing a just cause for eviction law to protect innocent renters in foreclosed properties. The law was the product of a one-year effort by Tenants Together members to educate the council about the impact of foreclosures on renters and how the city could take action. The Just Cause law stops banks and investors from evicting tenants based on foreclosure alone. This cost-free law prevents unfair displacement, prolonged vacancies, and blight in the city. The measure was praised by residents, the local newspaper, and local politicians.

As the first city in the region to pass a tenant protection ordinance, Merced received national attention for this proactive approach to protecting the community from banks and vulture investors whose eviction policies have destroyed the fabric of so many communities. The law went into effect in December 2011 and worked well for six months to control the foreclosure eviction epidemic.

When leadership on the Merced City Council changed, the new Mayor and his cronies decided that a top priority was to repeal the cost-free Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance. The mayor and new councilmembers had received campaign donations from real estate interests who saw keeping homes occupied as a threat to their commissions.

On June 4, 2012, Merced’s new mayor, Stan Thurston, new councilmembers Mike Murphy, Tony Dossetti, and incumbent councilmember Josh Pedrozo, by a 4-3 vote repealed Merced’s just cause for eviction law. There was not a single complaint of misuse of the Just Cause law, no incidents of the “fraud” that opponents claimed would result from the law, and absolutely no reason other than realtor campaign donations to repeal this sensible law that was protecting innocent renters after foreclosure.

The whole repeal effort was an embarrassing display of special interest politics at its worst, with Thurston, Murphy, Pedrozo and Dossetti bending over backwards to serve the interests of realtors employed by banks to drive good people out of their homes. Given the cast of characters, this was no surprise.

Mayor Thurston is a landlord with multiple rental properties in Merced and an axe to grind. He claims tenants have too many rights already. Dossetti is also a landlord who bought a foreclosed property and rents it out. His argument at hearings seems to be that because he wouldn’t evict his tenant there’s no need for a city law to stop banks and investors from doing so. Murphy is employed by Orrick Herrington, a huge national law firm that boasts of its representation of banks in mortgage securitization and other practices that led to the foreclosure crisis. No conflict there, right? Pedrozo appears to lack any conviction on the issue. He literally voted for the Just Cause law in August, against it in November, for it in December, and against it in June. Pedrozo originally praised the law as a proactive solution for the city, but that was before real estate interests told him to change his vote.

Tenants and allies in Merced responded immediately to the repeal, circulating the first referendum in the city’s history. A successful referendum would overturn the city council’s repeal and leave the Just Cause law intact. The goal was ambitious: collect signatures from 10% of registered city voters – 2949 to be precise -- within 30 days. This threshold is significantly higher than the threshold for initiatives (5% over many months) or county referenda (10% of actual voters, not registered voters).

Merced Tenants Together members were not deterred by the odds. Braving summer heat, our members took to the streets circulating a referendum petition to overturn the City Council’s action. The response from residents was overwhelmingly supportive of these renter protections.

On July 5, 2012, Merced Tenants Together members turned in a referendum petition signed by thousands of Mercedians. Assuming the accuracy of sampling results announced by the Registrar last week, at least 2,495 registered City of Merced voters signed the petition in 30 days. This did not cross the threshold of 2,949 required for the referendum to be effective, but is nonetheless a very impressive effort on the part of determined Merced renters.

To put this in perspective, more registered Merced voters signed this petition in 30 days than voted to put Mayor Thurston in office. (Thurston won election with just 2,231 votes back in November 2011.)

Thurston and his cronies can savor a temporary victory in preventing the Just Cause law from staying in effect, but the petition results should be very sobering for Mayor Thurston, councilmember Murphy, Councilmember Dossetti, and Councilmember Pedrozo.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the referendum drive was extremely productive. Among other accomplishments, the campaign:
• Registered new voters. These are new voters who are passionate about renters’ rights. Watch out!
• Obtained more signatures from registered Merced voters in 30 days than it takes to become mayor of Merced
• Educated thousands of Mercedians about the Just Cause for Eviction law and how local government can stop unfair evictions
• Exposed the fact that the Mayor and Councilmembers Dossetti, Murphy and Pedrozo sided with big banks and their realtors over innocent renters
• Attracted new Tenants Together members and trained local activists how to fight for fairness and justice for tenants

In the future, real estate industry interests will regret that they didn’t leave this modest law in place. By overreaching, the realtor-led repeal effort is uniting tenants and allies in support of renters’ rights in Merced and beyond.

In the meantime, next time you see a vacant, blighted property in Merced, think of the family that was kicked out of their home, and remember that the vacant, blighted property is brought to you by Mayor Stan Thurston, Councilmember Mike Murphy, Councilmember Tony Dossetti, and Councilmember Josh Pedrozo.

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