Government & Politics

Initiative petition debate heats up in Kansas City after Missouri Supreme Court order

Minimum wage rally outside Missouri Supreme Court

Terrance Wise, a fast food worker from Kansas City, discusses efforts to raise the minimum wage shortly after the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue.
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Terrance Wise, a fast food worker from Kansas City, discusses efforts to raise the minimum wage shortly after the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue.

Think transit activist Clay Chastain on steroids.

Voters might fear that Kansas City is already overwhelming them with initiative petition ballot questions by Chastain and other interest groups, but a recent Missouri Supreme Court order could open the floodgates.

“The genie may have just really come out of the bottle,” City Councilman Scott Wagner said.

Wagner and other Kansas City Council members are reacting to a Jan. 17 Missouri Supreme Court order that said the city must put an initiative petition for a higher minimum wage on the ballot, even though city leaders thought the proposal conflicted blatantly with state law.

Such objections had persuaded a circuit judge to order the minimum wage measure off the ballot in 2015. And that pre-election court scrutiny was seen as a potential legal barrier to other questionable petitions as well.

But the state Supreme Court justices reversed the circuit judge and said that because organizers followed city charter procedure and gathered sufficient signatures, they would not do a pre-election review.

Essentially, they said, the city must put questions that meet the charter’s standards on the ballot and see if they pass. If they do pass, then they can be challenged in court.

The 6-0 decision was the justices’ most emphatic statement against pre-election review that legal observers could recall.

That creates a conundrum for the City Council, because under the city charter, groups only need to gather about 1,700 signatures for an initiative petition, with unlimited time to collect them.

The number of signatures is equal to just 5 percent of turnout in the last mayoral election. Because Mayor Sly James had only token opposition in 2015, and only 34,000 people voted — down from 100,000 in the 1980s — the signature requirement is paltry.

“Kansas City has a very, very low signature requirement,” agreed Josh Altic, who researches and writes about ballot measures for Ballotpedia, an organization that covers national, state and local politics. “Compared to lots of other cities of the same size, it’s definitely low.”

St. Louis requires 5 percent of all registered voters, or about 10,000 signatures. Overland Park requires signatures equal to 25 percent of the last mayoral vote. Wichita requires signatures equal to 25 percent of voters in the most recent city election.

Mayor Sly James and City Council members are pondering the Supreme Court ruling’s potential impact. But they don’t yet have a strategy for how to deal with it.

“It is, on the one hand, desirable for citizens to have a right to petition, but I do believe that the threshold is too low,” James said. “I am pretty convinced that I could get an initiative petition signed that would mandate that all men wear bow ties on alternative Tuesdays, and then that would have to be put on the ballot.”

Council members all emphasized that citizens in Kansas City should have the right to petition their government. But they said it’s a matter of figuring out what’s reasonable.

Councilwoman Heather Hall said she thought many people who sign petitions don’t really realize what they are signing. That can raise false hopes or expectations, and can also lead to unintended consequences.

Although the proposal to raise Kansas City’s minimum wage must go on an election ballot, council members fear that even if voters approve it, the state law will simply overturn that vote, making the whole exercise a waste of time and money.

Other council members say too many petitions are a recipe for government paralysis.

“It’s just craziness,” said Councilwoman Teresa Loar, arguing it’s time to tighten the process. “Otherwise, we’re going to be governed by petition initiative like California. That’s no way to run a government.”

It’s also expensive, Loar and others said, since Kansas City elections cost about $500,000.

Those involved with petition drives respond that it’s an important mechanism for the people’s voice to be heard, and the council shouldn’t try to interfere with that.

Jamie Kacz, executive director of the Kansas City chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML KC), helped lead a drive for a marijuana reform measure that will appear on the April ballot.

She said it wasn’t easy gathering 1,700 signatures of registered Kansas City voters for their marijuana petition. Supporters went to libraries, grocery stores and other public places. It took volunteers from June through November, because many people they talked to lived in Kansas or outside the city limits.

“If this is something the people want, then our elected officials should listen,” she said.

Of course, changing the charter also requires a public vote. Some City Council members said they would like the mayor to appoint a new charter review commission to explore that option.

“It’s probably time for us to get some kind of charter review again, to have a conversation about that,” said Councilman Quinton Lucas.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields said a citizens charter review commission could help the council determine whether voters would be willing to change the petition process, and if so, how. They could recommend a higher signature threshold, or at least that signatures come from various parts of town.

“I think that’s part of what a citizens committee could help us answer,” she said.

But the mayor, who would have to appoint the charter review commission, isn’t sure now is the right time. The city went through a lengthy charter review process in 2013-2014 which ended in just one major charter revision — changing the council election calendar from winter to spring. It did not address the low petition signature requirement.

“At this point, I think it’s a complicated enough but important enough subject that it deserves some serious consideration, as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction,” James said.

The city has many priorities right now, he noted, including major infrastructure investments. He said he wouldn’t want a charter revision effort to undercut other important tasks.

“The one thing we don’t want to do,” he said, “is to have something like that look like it’s an attempt to short-circuit what’s already on the table.”

Kansas City is already dealing with multiple initiative petitions that have met the charter requirements and will be on upcoming ballots:

▪ East Side tax. A group of urban core advocates, ministers and others has a petition for a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase on the April ballot. The citywide tax would be targeted at East Side economic development.

▪ Marijuana. Kacz’s grassroots organization gathered enough signatures for a marijuana reform measure, also on the April 4 ballot. It would reduce the maximum fine from $500 to $25 for possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana. It would eliminate the possibility of jail time.

▪ Minimum wage. It asks voters to gradually increase Kansas City’s minimum wage above the state-set minimum of $7.70 to $15 by 2021. It’s still unclear whether that measure will be on in April or August.

▪ Clay Chastain. This out-of-town serial petitioner, whose light rail initiative failed with voters in November, is back with yet another streetcar proposal that is expect to go on the August ballot. It seeks a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase for 25 years, to pay part of the costs for a citywide streetcar expansion. This would be Chastain’s 10th Kansas City ballot measure in 20 years.

▪ Streetcar limits. A different group that opposes streetcar expansion has also gathered enough signatures for the August ballot. It seeks to restrict any plan for fixed rail or to expand the existing streetcar system without a citywide vote.

Kacz warned that if the City Council tries to rein in future petitions through a charter change, it could backfire. It might look as if the council is trying to undermine public engagement in city government.

“They’re looking to change it because citizens are actually trying to make change. It’s going to look pretty poorly,” she said.

Indeed, years ago, the City Council tried to get voters to change the charter, to make the petition process a bit more challenging. It didn’t work.

Proposed changes in 2001 and 2003 didn’t attempt to increase the required signatures, but would have required that those signatures come from at least four of the six council districts. That way, petitioners couldn’t just stand outside one grocery store or go to one part of town. Voters rejected both proposals.

Councilman Jermaine Reed said he’s often sympathetic to petitioners, as in the example of those fighting for a higher minimum wage. He said the low petition threshold may be somewhat mitigated during the next mayor’s race in 2019, when James will be term-limited out. That open mayoral seat is likely to spark a higher voter turnout, which in turn would automatically increase the number of required signatures.

Lucas said there’s another possible way to reduce petition initiatives. That’s to make sure the City Council is being especially responsive to the citizenry.

“We really don’t have a creative solution,” he said, “other than perhaps trying to be even better at governance, and getting people to trust us, such that they don’t feel the need to do all these petition drives.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley