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Charter Review Commission continues to wrestle with petition process

Tuesday, January 23, 2024 by Elizabeth Pagano

As the Charter Review Commission works to prepare its recommendations to City Council, a discussion at the most recent meeting showed that its members are still struggling with what changes they will recommend for the city’s petition process.

Currently, any citizen or group can get their suggested policy change on the ballot by collecting 20,000 signatures. That’s true for both changes to the city charter, as mandated by state law, as well as for changes to the city code, after voters lowered the requirement from 10 percent (or about 60,000 signatures) in 2012. But direction from City Council has pushed the commission to take a look at revising the process.

In light of that public perception, a petition-focused working group has been considering a number of options to address the issue, including raising the threshold of required signatures to get a proposition on the ballot, switching to a percentage of registered voters as a requirement or changing the timing of elections.

Though the group has yet to form a consensus on the recommendations, there seemed to be some agreement among commissioners to drop a previously proposed threshold of 50,000 signatures for “emergency” petitions that demanded an election at the next available opportunity. That change would more than double the current requirements for getting a citizen-driven policy on the ballot.

“I’m not a fan of that option, personally,” said working group member Cynthia Van Maanen. “If you’ve got the money, you’re going to be able to get those signatures. … I don’t foresee that working out the way that it had been written.”

Many members of the commission backed a change to a percentage of the population. At the moment, the 5 percent limit that has been proposed would be about 29,000 signatures.

However, because the 20,000-signature requirement for charter revisions is a state-mandated threshold, it cannot be changed by the city. Some commissioners worried that the lower limit would lead the public to believe that changes to the charter were not a serious matter and that it would encourage changes to it instead of the city code.

Commissioner Julio Gonzalez Altamirano supported the idea of moving the threshold to a percentage, noting that number would not need to be adjusted through the lengthy charter revision process for future population fluctuations.

And charter revisions can basically be made only every two years or so, which some commissioners reasoned was also a deterrent for frivolous petitions that seek to enshrine policy changes in the city’s guiding document. An alternative reading of the law by Altamirano could mean that those elections would be held every three, not two, years as a message that charter amendments were not to be taken lightly.

“Legally, you could do that,” said Assistant City Attorney Caroline Webster. “I would think that there would be a good chance the petitioners would sue us and I don’t know if we would win that or not. … Courts tend to be election-friendly. They want people to be able to vote.”

Chair Jessica Palvino did not appear to embrace the idea of making charter elections harder to hold.

“The combination of increasing the threshold combined with (delaying charter elections), perception-wise, is difficult,” she said. “And I think it would be difficult to message.”

Commissioner Betsy Greenberg spoke in favor of maintaining lower signature thresholds.

“To me, if you make it more difficult to do petitions, you’re just hurting grassroots organizations. The ones with the money will always be able to do it,” Greenberg said. “I think it’s really important we don’t deviate from state law.”

In addition to the ongoing discussion about signature requirements, the working group has three general recommendations for citizen-led initiatives. They are: 

  • Moving all referendum and initiative elections to general election dates in November, with the potential for emergency exceptions 
  • Establishing that the proposition with the highest percentage of votes will prevail in a situation with conflicting ballot propositions;
  • Changing the way propositions are identified by using an alphabetical rotation (instead of starting with “A” every time) in an attempt to clear up historic confusion.

During the meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to move forward with the recommendation that clarifies the procedure for competing propositions that appear on the same ballot.

The proposed changes will ultimately be accepted or rejected through an upcoming charter election as determined by City Council. Prior to that, the commission will hold a series of town halls to discuss its proposed amendments with the public, though the date for those has not yet been set.

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