Citizens for Responsible Government — the group seeking a public vote on subsidies for a downtown hotel — is upset. The City Council won’t put its petition on the ballot.
“Our mayor wants to deny the KCMO voters their right guaranteed by the Constitution,” the group’s news release said in late October. “That is the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The group misreads the First Amendment. As any high school student can tell you, the founders used the word “petition” in the broader sense, to “ask” or “request.” Cities and states can have a formal petition process, but it’s optional.
At the same time, voters in the cities and states that allow petitions are fiercely protective of the choice. Petitions are not meant to be advisory; they’re a specific tool for citizens to enact their own laws. Petitioners thumb their noses at representative democracy in favor of more direct decision-making.
But Kansas City’s now-muddled petition process is a mess, and it needs major reform.
As you may already know, the city’s threshold for valid initiatives, roughly 1,700 signatures, is absurdly low. That could be easily fixed by raising the number of required signees.
But the bigger issue is the direct involvement of the City Council in deciding how to deal with valid petitions. The whole point of petitions is to take elected officials out of the lawmaking process, not entangle them in it. Letting the council decide how or if a petition goes to voters isn’t just a nuisance, it’s a rejection of the very idea of petitions.
City Hall says voters shouldn’t have to pay for elections involving petitions that are clearly illegal. That’s probably right. But letting elected officials decide what is or isn’t illegal isn’t the answer either — it’s like a baseball team setting its own strike zone.
Kansas City’s petition process needs an umpire.
Here’s one way it might work. The city charter could require a petition committee to submit its proposal to the city’s legal department for review. If the department OKs the plan and the needed signatures are gathered, the proposal automatically goes on the next ballot.
If the city rejects the plan, though, the petition committee can ask for a quick judicial review — at the city’s expense, including paying for a lawyer for the petitioners. (Why pay for both sides? Because the city’s legal department doesn’t just represent the council. It represents citizens, including those who want to use their charter to gather petition signatures.)
If a judge agrees with the law department, the petition dies. If not, the signatures can be gathered and the plan placed automatically on the next ballot, without the council’s vote.
Council members would retain their ability to overturn voter-approved ordinances. Voters would retain the right to throw council members out of office.
Those changes, coupled with a substantial increase in the number of needed signatures, would give Kansas Citians a meaningful way to enact their own laws.
The other option is to end the petition process entirely. That would be preferable to the weird system now in place.
The Constitution does not require petitions. If voters want such a process, though, they deserve one that works. Perhaps, in 2016, they’ll get one.