On February 28, 2017, just six days after oral argument in Wilson v. County of Napa, __ Cal.App.5th __ (2016) (Case No. A149153), the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District affirmed a trial court decision in favor of the County of Napa, whose registrar of voters refused to place a land use initiative on the ballot because the initiative petition failed to include the “full text” of the measure. My partner, Art Coon, successfully represented the County in the action.

The stated purpose of the 18-page initiative petition, entitled the “Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2016,” was to protect the County’s streams, watersheds, wetlands, and forests. The initiative would have amended various general plan goals and policies and added a new “Oak Removal Permit Program” to the County Code that would effectively convert existing voluntary “best management practices” contained in the “Napa County Voluntary Woodland Management Plan” into mandatory legal requirements, but without including the text of those practices in, or attaching them to, the measure.

The County registrar of voters certified that the initiative contained the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot, but the registrar rejected the petition based on advice from County Counsel that it did not comply with the “full text” requirement of Elections Code section 9101. Section 9101 requires an initiative petition to contain the “full text of the proposed ordinance.” This requirement is satisfied so long as there is “substantial compliance.” The courts have concluded there is substantial compliance if an initiative sets forth in sufficient detail the text of the proposed initiative measure or the legislative act against which a referendum is brought “so that registered voters can intelligently evaluate whether to sign the initiative petition and to avoid confusion.”

The trial court held that the initiative did not contain “the full and complete text of everything that will be enacted if the voters approve it” because the petition omitted the relevant provisions of the Napa County Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan that it sought to enact into law.

Analyzing other key cases that have addressed the issue, the Court of Appeal explained that the “full text” rule simply requires an initiative petition to contain “the full and complete text of everything that will be enacted if the voters approve it.” Applying that rule to the facts, the Court held that “[t]he omission of the best management practices with which the proposed initiative would compel compliance frustrates the purpose of the full text rule and therefore invalidates the petition.”

The Wilson case does not break new legal ground, but it adds important clarity to the meaning of the “full text” rule for initiative petitions, underscoring that such measures must include the full and complete text of everything that would impose new legal obligations. Importantly, the “full text” rule does not preclude initiative petitions from cross-referencing other existing laws without including or attaching them—a common practice in the drafting of such measures—so long as such cross references do not impose new law.