Pictured: Ojai residents Jeffrey Starkweather (left) and Jeff Otterbein (holding sign) and a paid signature gatherer for the oil permitting referendum in front of the Vons grocery store in Ojai. Dec. 2, 2020. Photo by Dana Cineceros. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

Four local environmental groups argue a Sacramento-based political action committee (PAC) has violated state laws by intending to mislead the public during a signature-gathering referendum effort in Ventura County aimed at overturning recent changes to the county’s oil and gas permitting processes.  

Ventura County Counsel Michael Walker confirmed that his office has received and is reviewing a complaint letter dated Dec. 18, 2020, from Kevin Bundy, attorney with Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger LLP, representing Climate First! Replace Oil and Gas (CFROG), Los Padres ForestWatch, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter and Food and Water Watch. Walker declined to comment further on the matter. 

That letter, addressed to Mark Lunn, Ventura County Clerk-Recorder, Registrar of Voters, alleges the process used by Working Families for Jobs and Energy Independence (WFJEI) to collect  signatures submitted in support of their referendum violated state law, and therefore Lunn should not certify the signatures. 

Assistant Registrar of Voters Tracy Saucedo, spokesperson with Lunn’s office, confirmed that 45,764 signatures were submitted for Referendum against the NonCoastal Zoning Ordinance 4568 and 45,548 signatures were submitted supporting the referendum against Coastal Zoning Ordinance 4567. She said 30,912 valid signatures are required for each referendum. Lunn’s office has until Jan. 26 to certify the signatures. 

“Activists are obviously desperate to prevent Ventura County voters from having the final say on this important issue,” said Sabrina Lockhart, spokesperson with WFJEI and vice president of communications for California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA), a membership-based trade group for oil companies in the state. WFJEI is a registered committee with the state and lists CIPA and Aera Energy, a Shell/Exxon company, as its sponsors. 

WFJEI paid signature gatherers working at various locations throughout the county as part of its referendum effort. 

Saucedo explained that all signers “must be a Ventura County registered voter at the address he/she listed on the petition at the time the person signed the petition. Each petition page…is entered into the Elections Division’s voter registration petition module. The system randomly selects 3% of the signatures to be verified and each signature is then compared by Election Division staff against the voter’s registration records.”

If Lunn’s office certifies the signatures, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors will have the choice to either reverse its previous changes to the oil drilling permitting process, or the referendums will be placed on the ballot in 2022 in a regularly scheduled general election. The supervisors also have the option of holding a special election. 

A portion of the Ventura Oil Field, operated by Aera Energy, which would be subject to the new permitting rules being challenged by referendums. Google Earth image, Jan. 2021.

Due to the referendum effort, the oil and gas permitting changes, duly authorized by a majority vote of the elected supervisors, are currently inactive. The changes, which WFJEI is working to overturn, subject all new oil drilling and some re-drilling and reworking of wells to be subject to modern environmental review. Opponents of the new permitting rules have said it will decimate the oil and gas industry in the county, and cause the loss of thousands of jobs. The groups in support of the changes say the changes are needed to ensure oil companies are held to modern standards like all other business sectors —  something decades-old permits paired with county processes failed to require. 

Are ordinance changes vulnerable? 

Two of the supervisors who voted in favor of the changes are no longer on the board. Former supervisor for Dist. 1, Steve Bennett, is now seated as the State Assembly representative for Dist. 37. John Zaragoza, former supervisor for Dist. 5, is now serving as mayor of Oxnard. Newly sworn into those seats are Supervisors Matt LaVere (Dist. 1) and Carmen Ramirez (Dist. 5). 

Bennett, Zaragoza and Supervisor Linda Parks, (Dist. 2) voted for the changes last year, with Supervisors Bob Huber (Dist. 4) and Board Chair Kelly Long (Dist. 3) voting against. 

Ramirez is widely known to be no friend of the oil industry, with the sector spending nearly $1 million to defeat her in her successful 2020 campaign. LaVere has a thin record on oil drilling issues after serving just one term as mayor and city council member in Ventura, but he “looks promising” according to Tomas Rebecchi, Senior Central Coast Organizer with Food and Water Watch in terms of taking a strong stand on climate change issues. 

Rebecchi points out that during LaVere’s campaign “he took the no-fossil-fuel-money pledge” and said he’d support a ban on fracking at a meeting of the Ventura Democratic Club during the 2020 campaign. LaVere also denounced an oil industry-funded PAC that listed LaVere as a candidate the PAC was supporting (it later dropped LaVere from the list). According to Rebecchi, when asked whether he’d support a ban on extreme extraction techniques like cyclic steam, LaVere said he’d need to look into it more. 

Projects involving cyclic steam and other processes could be impacted by the permitted changes and be subject to more extensive environmental review. 

Each referendum addresses one of the changes supervisors made to county zoning ordinances that require modern environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for new drilling. The November action of the supervisors, made in a 3-2 vote, amended the Ventura County Coastal and Non-Coastal Zoning ordinances requiring “new” oil and gas exploration and production in any active oil field in the county, regardless of the type of permit that currently governs operations, to be reviewed in a discretionary process by Ventura County Planning. 

“The [changes to the] zoning ordinances will only result in more local workers losing quality careers at a time when the county can’t afford to lose a single job or critical tax dollar,” said Lockhart, citing the stresses on the local economy from the pandemic. “We are confident Ventura County residents will understand that keeping energy production local…is good for both the economy and the environment.”

The objections

The groups objecting say the process was a clear attempt to mislead the public in order to get enough signatures. 

In the Dec. 18 letter, Bundy alleged that signature-gathering documents failed to include the original text of the ordinances and that the paid signature gatherers provided false and misleading information to the public to convince them to sign the petition. Bundy argues that these constitute “fatal defects in the petitions,” and “require that the Registrar reject both petitions.”

The first objection is that WFJEI violated California’s Election Code Section 9147, which states, “Each section of the referendum petition shall contain the title and text of the ordinance or the portion of the ordinance which is the subject of the referendum.”

The documents used by signature gatherers only included the language proposed by WFJEI, rather than showing the current language, and the language the referendum, if passed, would approve. Bundy states this omission renders the petitions invalid.

The objection letter points to the intention of the law, which Bundy writes is aimed at ensuring anyone who provides their signature fully understands what they are signing and that by not including both versions of the ordinance language, WFJEI intended to cloud the public’s understanding and circumvented the intention of state laws that govern referendums. 

Lockhart called these claims “legally and factually groundless,” without providing further clarification. 

Misleading the public?

The objection letter also points to reports from members of the public that signature gatherers themselves provided false information which, if true, would constitute a misdemeanor violation of Election Code Section 18600, which states that anyone is in violation of this section who “as principal or agent or having charge or control of the circulation of, or obtaining signatures to, any state or local initiative, referendum or recall petition, intentionally misrepresents or intentionally makes any false statement concerning the contents, purport or effect of the petition…to any person who signs, or who desires to sign, or who is requested to sign, or who makes inquiries with reference to it, or to whom it is presented for the person’s signature.” 

Lockhart declined to comment on the alleged false information being provided by signature gatherers, other than to refer to her comment that the charges are baseless.  

James Brehm, 32, of Ventura, was part of a group of concerned residents who responded to a call to action during the signature gathering. Brehm said he saw an email for the Decline to Sign campaign and what most concerned him wasn’t that folks would sign the petition, but that they wouldn’t fully understand what they were signing. He told the Ventura County Reporter that when he went out to multiple locations and spoke with signature gatherers, his concern grew. 

“People should be properly informed if they’ve signed this,” said Brehm. He was told by signature gatherers that if he didn’t sign the petition “20,000 jobs would be lost” in the county and that by signing he would help “lower gas and electricity prices.” Neither of which, Brehm said, is true. “It is just misleading.” 

The groups objecting to the referendum point to a 2019 Economic Profile Report on 2018 data from the Ventura County Community College District that shows there were 887 jobs in the mining, quarrying and oil and gas sector in the county. 

Margot Davis, 80, of Ventura, also went to speak with signature gatherers and said she felt it was her “duty” to her children and grandchildren to reduce the environmental impacts of local oil drilling. She supports the county’s new ordinances because they will bring local oil operations up to current environment review standards. 

Brehm pointed out that the new permitting rules wouldn’t mean the existing oil wells are shut down. He said the referendum effort is a “propaganda campaign” with “infinite” amounts of money to fund it. 

“They are not telling [the public] that if they get all the signatures it would make the oil companies immune to environmental laws,” said Brehm. He noted that one talking point of the industry is that California has some of the strictest laws on oil and gas drilling in the world, but he said that the laws are only as good as the enforcement. According to Brehm, Ventura County oil companies want to remain “exempt” from those existing laws. 

Brehm also criticized the referendum/initiative process in  California. “It was enacted to be used by individuals…grassroots efforts…it’s not supposed to be 100 people paid to get signatures…it’s an abuse of the initiative process.” 

Davis said it was her “duty” to help shed light on what the oil and gas industry is trying to do in the county. “It’s unconscionable…the short term greed.” 

Here is the Dec. 18, letter from Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger to the office of Mark Lunn, Ventura County Clerk-Recorder-Voter Registrar : Ltr to Ventura County re Ordinances 4567-68 – 12-18-20