Initiatives and Referenda

Kern County’s ordinance banning marijuana dispensaries was validly reenacted because a “material change in circumstances” had occurred since the County previously repealed a similar ordinance in response to a referendum petition.  County of Kern v. Alta Sierra Holistic Exchange Service, No. F077887 (5th Dist., March 6, 2020).

In 2011, the County adopted an ordinance banning medical marijuana dispensaries.  Opponents of the ban presented a valid referendum petition to the County.  In response, the County Board of Supervisors repealed the 2011 ordinance.

In 2016, the County adopted an urgency measure placing a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries.  Later that year, California voters passed Proposition 64, a statewide initiative legalizing recreational marijuana.  In 2017, the County adopted an ordinance declaring the operation of both recreational and medical marijuana dispensaries a public nuisance.

The County brought nuisance abatement proceedings against the defendant marijuana dispensaries.  Defendants argued that both the 2016 and 2017 ordinances violated the Elections Code by reenacting an “essential feature” of the 2011 ordinance despite the successful referendum petition. The appellate court disagreed and crafted a new rule for determining the circumstances under which a county may reenact essential features of an ordinance repealed by referendum.

The Material-Change-in-Circumstances Test

Elections Code section 9145, which governs county referenda procedures, does not provide a time limit for reenacting ordinances previously repealed by referenda. This contrasts with Elections Code section 9241, which prohibits cities from reenacting a protested ordinance within a year after the ordinance was disapproved by the voters. Analyzing the two statutes, the appellate court determined that the legislature’s silence in section 9145 on the “question of procedure involving the protection of the referendum power” left it to the court to create procedures to protect the power.
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