MERCED -- A signature drive to save a controversial renters' rights law in the city of Merced has come up short.
Tenants' advocates failed to collect enough valid signatures to move forward with a voter referendum on the now repealed Just Cause for Eviction ordinance, according to local officials.
"They did not get the signatures validated for the council to consider it for the ballot," said John Bramble, city manager. "No action shall be taken if the petition is insufficient."
After the council voted 4-3 to repeal the ordinance two months ago, supporters of the law launched a signature drive that if successful would have forced the council to reconsider their repeal and could have sent the matter to the ballot box in November.
However, many of the signatures gathered by supporters of the renters' rights ordinance were not from voters registered in the city of Merced.
"I have no idea what the will of the people is regarding this ordinance," said Mayor Stan Thurston, who opposed the law. "My main take on the referendum was how weak the number is for registered voters in the city of Merced."
Supporters gathered 3,780 signatures in 30 days in hopes of starting the referendum process, which requires the valid signatures of 10 percent of city voters, or 2,949 in Merced, local officials said.
In accordance with state election code, local officials electronically selected 500 random signatures in an effort to certify that a sufficient number of valid ones had been submitted.
However, only 285, or 57 percent, of the 500 belonged to people registered to vote in the city, said Stacey Cotter, assistant registrar of voters for Merced County.
For the referendum to go forward, 390, or 78 percent, of the 500 signatures randomly selected had to be valid. That's the same percentage of the total number of signatures gathered that -- if validated -- would have met the requirement to move the referendum forward.
If the percentage of voter signatures validated were 5 percent under or 10 percent over the percentage needed to qualify the referendum, a full hand count would have been triggered under the law, according to city officials.
The law, which was in effect for about eight months, restricted property owners from using foreclosure as a reason for eviction. The protection didn't apply to tenants who failed to pay their rent on time, refused to sign a rental agreement or engaged in a number of other unfavorable activities.
Tenants Together, a renters' advocacy nonprofit based in San Francisco, brought the idea to the council more than a year ago. After months of working with city officials, the council passed the ordinance in November.
After several new members joined the council after a recent election, the law was repealed with the backing of the real estate community.
Although the ordinance has been repealed, the push to protect tenant rights isn't over. "There's a growing renters' rights movement in this city," said Dean Preston, Tenants Together executive director.
"We have an active chapter here," he said. "Our members are not going to give up on advancing renters' rights and protecting renters' rights in Merced based on anything this City Council or the mayor does."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.