A certain mass transit enthusiast was back in court last week, trying yet again to convince a judge that his light-rail petition should go before voters. Kansas City yawned.
Just because Clay Chastain is an irritant of nearly a quarter-century’s standing, though, doesn’t mean we should ignore what he shows us, which is that Kansas City’s initiative petition process is largely a fraud that should be fixed or discarded.
The ability of citizens to enact legislation by petition — bypassing elected officials — became popular at the turn of the 20th century. Social activists, frustrated that office-holders could bottle up progressive initiatives, persuaded states and eventually cities to allow voters a chance to enact their own laws by petition.
Kansas City’s process mocks that ideal. Although the city’s charter allows citizens to put a measure on the ballot, it also allows the City Council to change or repeal voter-approved initiatives. And now, the city argues, the charter permits the council to stop measures it doesn’t find legally acceptable from ever getting to the ballot.
In Kansas City, you need the City Council’s approval to bypass the City Council.
This silliness is easily fixed. On the back end, the council’s right to reject a petition-approved law makes sense as a check on voters’ power, but rejecting a law should require nine of 13 votes. Under current law, throwing out a petition ordinance a year after it passes takes a simple majority.
And there should be a procedure on the front end for a city department to validate a petition’s legalitybefore
signatures are gathered — roughly the procedure the state already uses. The review could allow quick intervention by a judge if the city holds up approval.
In return, petitioners should be required to get more signatures to put something on the ballot. Today the threshold is just 5 percent of the votes in the last mayoral election, about 3,500 signatures; instead, it should be 5 percent ofregistered
voters, roughly 17,000 valid Kansas City signatures gathered over a set time frame of perhaps six months.
If someone can get that many valid signatures on a technically approved petition, it should go on the next ballot automatically, without council or judicial oversight.
This may seem like a lot of fuss. But embedding the fiction of a fair petition process in the city’s charter can lead to immense skepticism over how open the system really is.
That’s a bigger problem than another petition from the well-known Clay Chastain.
The other solution is to drop the initiative process altogether. That would hurt democracy, perhaps, but it would end the charade that voters can truly enact laws without council interference.