National City voters will decide in March if a new ordinance banning the retail sale of dogs, cats and rabbits should be overturned.
Like a state law that took effect this year, the city's ban aims to halt the sale of puppy mill animals.
"It's not about puppies; it's about where they are coming from and the pockets that are being filled financially to make this happen," said councilmember Mona Rios.
The backstory involves a long struggle between animal advocates and pet store operator David Salinas, who owns National City Puppy, the Puppy Patch, and other pet stores in the county.
As Salinas sees it, his stores can't survive if they have to rely on selling supplies, not puppies. On October 2, the day before the city's ordinance was to take effect, he turned in a petition with enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot.
Nine hundred of the 3,000 signatures submitted were deemed invalid, and animal advocates questioned how they were obtained.
"When I went to Walmart, this is the exact sign" being used to solicit signatures, Karen Clayton told the council, waving one she saw tossed in the trash. It said "2 great issues to get on the ballot" - rent control and "stop pet trafficking for National City residents."
Kayla Penny, an employee of National City Puppy who helped collect signatures, said they informed people about what they were signing, "making sure they knew they should have a choice in being able to decide whether the puppy store stays or goes."
City clerk Mike Dalla said the registrar of voters took charge of verifying signatures for the city, and certifying that there were enough valid signatures.
The city council then had to make their own decision about it at a meeting on November 19. The council could either repeal or submit the ordinance unchanged at the next municipal election, Dalla said.
Vice mayor Ron Morrison, the lone councilmember against the ordinance, said it should be up to the state, not individual cities, to patch holes in the Pet Rescue and Adoption Act.
Both laws require pet stores to obtain animals from shelters and rescues, but the city goes further, barring stores from profiting at all from the sale of rescue pets – which activists say are still coming from mills and sham rescues.
"The state law allows you to partner with not only a public shelter but also a 501c3 that is partnered with a shelter," said attorney and animal advocate Bryan Pease, who worked on the bans. But there's another question no one is following up on. "Is the 501c3 actually operating a shelter?"
Pease favored letting voters decide on the ordinance. "You shouldn't back down and repeal it."
But some who oppose it now sounded eager to forego a vote.
Richard Pena, a representative for National City Puppy, said Salinas was willing to work with the city to "create a resolution that best reflects the needs" of residents, animal advocates, and the puppies.
The money that will go to an expensive ballot measure and multiple lawsuits would be best allocated for important city services, Pena said. "We have reached out to your city attorney and asked her to begin the negotiation process as soon as possible; specifically, before you decide to place our referendum on the ballot."
Councilmember Rios looked out at the crowd of Salinas supporters, and said that Pena "said something entirely different than what you all are saying, so you guys need to get on the same page. He's saying let's talk about this before it gets on the ballot."
What happened, what changed from the time the signatures were collected and brought back, she asked? "Now you don't want this to go to voters?"
Neither did vice mayor Morrison, who made an unsuccessful motion to rescind the ordinance, which goes to voters on March 3.
"Twenty-twenty is a big year," said mayor Alejandra Sotello-Solis, worrying that people "are already casting doubt on what messages are being put out."