Category Archives: Initiative

Land Use At The Ballot In Boulder, Colorado

Land use and zoning are not always issues that can be addressed through the initiative process. Leaving these decisions in the hands of city officials can create issues where some developments get preferential treatment and variances while others are held strictly to the letter of the law. In Colorado activists are using the initiative process to take those decisions away from municipal officials.

Boulder, Colorado citizens have proposed two charter amendments that would require public approval of projects that do not conform with existing land use regulations.

Proposed Boulder charter amendments

“Development Shall Pay Its Own Way” would require the city to develop measurements for levels of service in a variety of areas, including police, fire, libraries, parks, human services and transportation, and to not approve new development that does not pay for or otherwise provide for that level of service to be maintained. New development would be defined as any project that increases the floor area of a building or site, or any change in use of an existing building.

“Neighborhoods’ Right to Vote on Land-Use Regulation Changes” would require a vote on land-use changes if 10 percent of the registered voters in a neighborhood asked for one. Land-use changes that would subject to a vote would include exemptions to height, density and the occupancy limit, reductions in parking and setbacks, and zoning changes. Land-use changes that affect multiple neighborhoods would require separate elections in each neighborhood.

Another land use ballot question will be voted on in Aspen Colorado on May 5, 2015. It’s intent is similar, a voter approval requirement for zoning variances.

Sample Ballot:

CO_Aspen_5_5_15_SampleBallot

Text of the Amendment:

QUESTION NO. 1
Shall Article XIII of the Home Rule Charter of the City of Aspen be amended by the addition of the following?
Section 13.14 – Voter authorization of certain land use approvals.
(a)        Any land use approval granted by the City of Aspen, or an amendment to a previous land use approval, including those granted as a result of litigation, on land within the zone districts listed in paragraph (b), that exceeds the zoning limitations for allowable floor area or maximum height (including height restricted by view planes), or which reduces the requirements for the amount of off-street parking spaces or affordable housing, shall not be effective unless subsequently approved by a majority of all City electors voting thereon.
(b)        Except as set forth herein below, the provisions of paragraph (a) shall apply to all properties east of Castle Creek within the following zone districts on January 1, 2015: Commercial Core (CC) zone district, Commercial (C-1) zone district, Service/Commercial/Industrial (S/C/I) zone district, Neighborhood  Commercial (NC) zone district, Mixed Use (MU) zone district, Lodge (L) zone district, Commercial Lodge (CL) zone district, Lodge Overlay (LO) zone district, Lodge Preservation Overlay (LP) zone district.
(c)        Although within the zone districts set forth in paragraph (b), the following shall be exempt from the provisions of paragraph (a): single-family and duplex homes, replacement of non-conforming structures, and variations necessary to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Federal Telecommunications  Act (FTA), to implement energy efficiency measures, to meet applicable building and fire codes, or an amendment to a previous land use approval that reduces height or floor area or increases the amount of parking or affordable housing.
(d)        The approval of the electorate required by this Section shall take place at the next available previously scheduled state or county election, the next general municipal election or a special election set by the Council, whichever is earlier.
(e)        The City of Aspen shall amend the Land Use Regulations to be consistent with this Home Rule Charter Amendment.

YES
NO

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Sammamish, Washington I&R Advisory Vote

Sammamish, Washington will be having an advisory note next Tuesday 4/28/2015 to judge public support for initiative and referendum. An advisory vote is not legally binding but should influence the council. Advisory votes can be called through an advisory petition (read more about advisory petitions here,) or by the legislative body in that jurisdiction. This advisory vote has been called by the Sammamish city council at their February 3, 2015 meeting.

Sammamish is a charter code city under Washington state law, but citizens do not currently have a binding legal means to propose municipal legislation apart from the city council. Harry Shedd a resident of Sammamish has put together a beautiful website explaining the advisory vote, and the initiative and referendum process.

For more information:

Sammamish Review
Ballotpedia page

Arguments in favor

Arguments against

 

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Requiring A Streetcar Vote

San Antonio, Texas will be voting on a city charter amendment on 5/9/2014 to decide if any future streetcar or lightrail projects constructed with tax dollars must be approved by voters.

Sample Ballot: SanAntonio5_9_15citysample

Ballot Title:

CHARTER AMENDMENT NO. 1
SHALL THE CITY CHARTER BE AMENDED TO PROVIDE THAT NO GRANT OF PERMISSION TO ALTER OR DAMAGE ANY PUBLIC WAY OF THE CITY FOR THE LAYING OF STREETCAR OR LIGHT RAIL TRACKS SHALL EVER BE VALID,AND NO FUNDS SHALL BE APPROPRIATED AND NO BONDS OR NOTES SHALL BE ISSUED OR SOLD FOR THE PURPOSE OF STREETCAR OR LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, UNLESS FIRST APPROVED BY A MAJORITY OF THE QUALIFIED ELECTORS OF THE CITY VOTING AT AN ELECTION CONTAINING A PROPOSITION SPECIFICALLY IDENTIFIED FOR AND LIMITED TO SUCH PURPOSE?

From www.mysanantonio.com:

In the upcoming San Antonio city elections, voters should give themselves the right to vote on any future light rail project by voting “yes” on the city charter amendment.

When Mayor Ivy Taylor pulled the city’s funding for the streetcar last summer, County Judge Nelson Wolff said at the time, “VIA has done a horrible job of articulating why they’re doing streetcar. It’s been a tremendous failure on their part to explain it.” But without a vote before rail is built, there is little incentive for any public agency to provide adequate public information.

Indeed, VIA has gone to great lengths to avoid a public vote on rail. VIA obviously had the streetcar in mind when in 2011 its cadre of paid lobbyists asked the Texas Legislature to pass a bill allowing VIA to issue bonds without going to the voters, as the law would otherwise have required. The charter amendment will simply reverse this ill-advised legislation.

City Published Voter Guide:

SanantonioVoterGuide_5_9_15

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Ethics Amendment, Tallahassee, Florida

An interesting ethics amendment passed in Tallahasse, Florida 11/04/2014

CFR_Tallahassee_FL_14

Text of the amendment:

AMENDMENT TO CHARTER OF CITY OF TALLAHASSEE
Section 1. Charter Amendment.
The “Existing Municipality” provisions of Sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the Charter of the City of Tallahassee, having been previously deleted as being obsolete, are hereby reestablished as an Ethics, Anti-corruption, Campaign Financing subpart with new sections 1, 2, 3, and 4 to read as follows:
ETHICS, ANTI-CORRUPTION, CAMPAIGN FINANCING
Section  1.  Statement  of  Ethics  and  Anti-corruption Policy.  The  proper  operation  of  responsible  government  requires  that  public  officials  and  employees  be  independent, impartial, and responsible to the people; that government decisions and policy be made in the best interests of the community and the government; that public office not be used for personal gain; that officials and employees not be unduly or inappropriately influenced by those they regulate or by those who seek special benefits from the City; and that the public have confidence in the integrity and transparency of its government.

Section 2. Ethics Code and Ethics Board to be established.

a. Ethics Code. The City Commission shall, within six (6) months of the enactment of this charter provision, enact an ethics, or conflicts of interest, code with jurisdiction over the officers and employees of the City of Tallahassee, whether elected or appointed, paid or unpaid, and over the members, officers and employees of any boards, commissions, or committees thereof. The ethics code may, as allowed by law, supplement state ethics laws.

b. Ethics Board. There is hereby created an independent, appointed, ongoing citizens Ethics Board of seven members, whose membership shall consist of registered City of Tallahassee electors who have appropriate subject matter expertise none of whom may be an officer or employee of local government. Each of the following persons or entities shall make an appointment of one of five Board members to wit: the City Commission, the Chief Judge for the Second Judicial Circuit, the State Attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit, the President of Florida State University and the President of  Florida A&M University. Two Board members shall be appointed by the Ethics Board. Initial appointments shall be  made  within 90 days  of the approval of this Charter provision and all subsequent appointments shall be  made  within 60 days of a vacancy occurring. The City Commission shall provide by ordinance for the length and staggering of the terms of Ethics Board members.

The Ethics Board shall: (i) assist the City Commission in the development of the ethics code; (ii) adopt bylaws and due process procedures for the administration of the Ethics Board; (iii) manage a citywide ethics hotline for receipt of allegations of local corruption, fraud, waste, mismanagement, campaign finance  and ethics violations; (iv) manage and coordinate the mandatory training of local officials, officers, employees, and board members in state and local ethics; (v) have the authority to refer ethics and corruption matters to appropriate enforcement agencies; (vi) recommend proposed ordinances, resolutions, or charter amendments to the City Commission in all areas of ethics and corruption, including but  not  limited  to:  conflicts  of  interests,  financial  disclosure,  voting  conflicts,  hotline  policies, ethics  education,  ethics  in  procurement,  campaign  ethics  and  financing,  and lobbying; such legislative proposals shall be filed with and considered by the City Commission; (vii) have the authority to investigate complaints and to levy those civil penalties as may be authorized by the City Commission for violations of the City’s ethics code; and  (viii) employ staff serving in the ethics office. A structure shall be established for the Ethics Board that ensures independence and impartiality, and provides for the maximum practicable input from citizens and community organizations.  The Ethics Board shall be funded by the City Commission within its discretionary budgetary authority at a level sufficient to discharge the Board’s responsibilities.

Section 3. Ethics Office Established.
The  ethics  code  established  pursuant  to  Section  2  shall  provide  for  the  establishment  of  a  citywide  Ethics  Office  under  the  exclusive  jurisdiction  of,  and  reporting  to  the independent Ethics Board, to discharge the duties and responsibilities of the Ethics Board as provided herein. The ethics office shall include an Ethics Officer/Director who may be a full time or part time city employee or independent contractor. The Ethics Office shall be funded by the City Commission within its discretionary budgetary authority at a level sufficient to discharge the Office’s responsibilities.

Section 4. Contribution Limitations; Citizen Campaign Financing, Refund of contributions to candidates.
a. No candidate for the Tallahassee City Commission shall accept any election campaign contribution from any contributor, including a political committee as defined by state law, in cash or in kind, in an amount in excess of $250 per election.
b. A registered elector of the City of Tallahassee may claim a refund equal to the amount of the elector’s monetary contributions made in the calendar year to candidates for Mayor and City Commission of the City of Tallahassee. The maximum refund for an individual is $25. A refund is allowed only if the elector files a form, signed under penalty of perjury, with the Ethics Board  and attaches to the form a copy of an official refund receipt form(s) issued by the candidate’s principal campaign committee after each contribution was received.  A claim form must be filed within time limits and procedures set by the Ethics Board.  No individual may file more than one claim per election cycle.  No receipt can be issued by a Candidate who has not met all legal requirements of the Tallahassee City Code of General Ordinances. The Ethics Board shall file a summary report to the Mayor and City Commission showing the total number and aggregate amount of political contribution refunds made on behalf of each candidate.
c. The City Commission shall establish procedures consistent with this section for the implementation of the refund policy. The amount the Ethics Board states is necessary to pay refunds as provided for in this section shall be appropriated in amounts from the general fund or any other fund as determined by the City Commission within their sole budgetary discretion and powers.
d. The filing  of  a  contribution  refund  form  containing  materially  false  information  or  the  willful  issuance  of  an  official  refund  receipt  form  or  a  facsimile  of  one  by  a candidate  or  agent  of  a  candidate  to  a  person  who  did  not  make  a  contribution  to  such  candidate  is  an ethics  offense  with  penalties  to  be  established  by the  City Commission.  The Ethics Board may hear complaints or initiate proceedings, and levy civil penalties, relating to alleged violations of this section.
Section 2.  Severability.  If any section, subsection or provision of this charter amendment is determined by a court to be invalid, the remainder of this charter amendment shall not be affected by such invalidity.
Pd. Pol. Adv. Paid for by Citizens for Ethics Reform, 1400 Village Square Blvd. #3-153, Tallahassee, FL 32312

From the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper:

Voters overwhelmingly approved sweeping new ethics and campaign-finance measures for the city of Tallahassee — an outcome that was no surprise to many political observers.

Yes votes for the city charter amendment were leading late Tuesday night. With 76 of 76 precincts reporting, unofficial results were:

Yes: 38,968 votes, 67 percent yes

No: 19,431 votes, 33 percent no

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida and a driving force behind the charter amendment, applauded its passage.

Citizens for Ethics Reform A Florida group supporting the measure.

There is a national group pushing more of these initiatives. Represent.us

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Term Limits, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Grand Rapids, Michigan 11/04/2014 voters approved a term limits amendment to the city charter.

Petition TL_GR_2014

Text of the Petition:

To the City Clerk for the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan: A proposal to amend the Grand Rapids City Charter, Title II; by adding a Section 5 (compilers paragraph 9.2) as follows: “No person shall be eligible for election as a City Commissioner of any Ward if that person has served as a City Commissioner of any Ward for two terms. No person shall be eligible for election as Mayor if that person has served as Mayor for two terms. A person is eligible to be a Ward City Commissioner for two terms and an additional two terms as the Mayor. Serving more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected shall be considered a term. This section only applies to the positions of Ward City Commissioner and of Mayor.” We, the undersigned qualified and registered electors, residents in the CITY OF GRAND RAPIDS, in the County of Kent, State of Michigan, respectfully petition for Initiation of charter amendment.

 

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Business Leaders Tired of Fighting Citizens

Colorado’s legislature is on the attack. They have gotten the word from their lobbyist friends to gut the initiative process. We can’t go a single session without legislators deciding the citizens aren’t smart enough to decide issues for themselves.

 

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Online Petitions, Advisory Petitions, Plebiscite Petitions, and Initiative Petitions

Online petitions, advisory petitions, plebiscite petitions, and initiative petitions, each involve you signing your name in support of an issue. How are they different?

Online petitions are becoming more and more common. It’s easy to make an online petition. Google “petition” or “online petition” and you’ll get links to many places that will let you set up and account, link to your social media accounts, and ask your friends to sign your petition. Change.org, ipetition, and We The People are all petition sites where you can use social media to build awareness for your issue. People use these sites to put pressure on politicians, companies, individuals or organizations to change laws, policies, or behaviors. There are many success stories. These petitions are not legally binding. Online petitions are effective in the same manner a boycott or rally can be effective, by drawing attention to a problem and putting pressure on people who have the power to take action. They’re also very effective for building lists.

Advisory petitions are a less common form of legal petitions. An advisory petition typically allows citizens to call a non-binding vote on a particular issue. The results of that election are intended to show public support or opposition to an issue with the hope politicians will take action to change the law.

A plebiscite petition is similar to an online petition but it’s not done online. Circulators carry petition forms and ask people to sign in support of a specific issue. Like online petitions they are used to put pressure on decision makes. They are also used to build lists.

Initiative petitions are different, they are a legal document people sign to force government officials to call a vote on a specific piece of legislation written on the petition. When you sign an initiative petition or gather signatures on an initiative petition you are working to allow voters a choice on that piece of legislation. Initiative petitions lead to a binding vote and are governed by very specific laws. These laws require the petition to comply with many specific details, details that are different in every state. When sponsors of an initiative petition have gathered enough signatures and submit the petition, the governing body is compelled to let voters decide the issue. When voters go to the ballot box the legislation is presented as a ballot question and people vote to approve or reject the initiated legislation. If voters approve the legislation it become law in that political subdivision.

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Statute or Amendment

 

The initiative is a means to bypass politicians. In many initiative states initiators have the choice of circulating petitions to propose a statute or a constitutional amendment, (in home rule cities initiators choose between ordinance and charter amendment). In some states lawmakers have the option of approving statutes and ordinances without sending the issue to voters, amendments require voter approval. Amendments also require more petition signatures.

Why do most initiators choose to put in the extra money and effort to propose amendments? Once passed amendments can’t be overturned without a vote of the people.

Gathering signatures, fighting legal battles, and running a campaign is a big commitment most initiators are only willing to make when they know their initiative will result in real change. It’s not surprising most initiators choose to go the constitutional or charter amendment route when possible.

 

Two recent examples where legislators are able to mess with voter approved initiatives:

South Dakota lawmakers recently exempted persons under 18 from a minimum wage increase approved by voters last November. Supporters of the minimum wage increase are organizing to run a referendum petition drive to challenge the exemption.

Washington state voters approved an initiative last fall to require lower class sizes in public schools. The senate recently passed a measure to change the initiated law and only require k-3rd grade classes be reduced in size, now they want to send it back to voters (further delaying the class size requirement.)

 

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Court Seals Names Of Petition Signers

When initiatives go after public spending you can be sure a lawsuit will arise. In Dixon, California residents petitioned to stop a sewer rate increase. The overall issue is complex and involves state standards that the city’s current waste water treatment facility does not seem to meet. Citizens were able to gather signatures to call for a vote on the rate increase but the city is suing the group that gathered the signatures. Some citizens who signed the petition challenged to keep their personal information given the petition from become a public record. In response the court sealed the names of the petition signers.

 

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Misleading Ballot Titles

A ballot title is what you read when you vote on a ballot question. Ballot titles like push polls can result in huge differences in how voters perceive an issue at the moment when they must make a choice. In the case of recall, millage, or referendum most state statutes give fairly strict guidelines on how the question must appear on the ballot. Shall X be approved? Shall John Doe be recalled from office for XYZ?

arissue3

However when it comes to the initiative process writing a ballot title can be much more subjective. The law is different in every state and ballot titles are most commonly written in one of three ways:

State or local elections official or their agent, this might be the Attorney General, Secretary of State, or city clerk.

Legislative body, the legislature, city council, or county commission.

Proponents of the initiative, the group circulating petitions to call for an election on a particular initiative.

 

Problems occur when a ballot title appears biased. When the ballot title appears to make a yes or no vote sound more appealing, or is outright deceptive in explanation of the issue, people on the other side of the issue will justifiably take offense. In many cases this results in expensive lawsuits and people without deep pockets are at a huge disadvantage. Groups may spend tens of thousands of dollars only to have courts rule against them despite obvious bias.

This week a judge in Mississippi ruled that the legislature had crafted a ballot title that was deceptive.

“Judge Winston Kidd ruled in favor of Adrian Shipman, a mother of two in the Oxford Public Schools, that the legislature’s alternative language was too confusing and too similar to the original citizen’s initiative language. Kidd has ordered that language to be changed. The new alternative language, which was not immediately available, would follow a suggestion offered by Better Schools, Better Jobs, the group that worked to put the initiative on the ballot for this November.

The easiest remedy to this issue is to let voters read the entire measure on the ballot, but often lengthy legislation makes this impractical (I consider lengthy legislation a problem on its own).

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