In 1925, Kansas Citians approved a new charter that included a controversial idea: direct democracy.
Elected officials would still make most public-policy decisions. But ordinary residents could rule by petition: With enough signatures and support at the polls, voters could bypass City Hall and make laws on their own or repeal laws enacted by the City Council.
Kansas Citians have fiercely protected their right to directly challenge elected leaders. They’ve used petitions to fight zoning and development decisions, battle taxes and fees, push for city improvements.
This April, voters will consider a change in marijuana laws, a sales tax for the East Side and perhaps a higher minimum wage — all as a result of petitions.
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Voters have recalled council members. They’ve set limits on council terms. Just the threat of a petition has affected dozens of policy decisions at 12th and Oak.
But Kansas City’s petition process is now badly broken. And the time to fix it is now.
The problem isn’t the petition process itself. Instead, the low threshold for signatures has made the process far too easy, essentially taking every major decision out of the hands of elected leaders and putting it in the hands of activists willing to hold a clipboard in the winter’s chill.
It takes just 5 percent of the total number of voters from the last mayoral election to sign a valid petition and force a vote on a public issue. The 2015 turnout was so low that only about 1,700 signatures are now needed for a vote. Just 3,400 signatures are needed for a referendum on measures passed by the City Council.
The low threshold frustrates elected officials, of course. But council members have often responded inappropriately and illegally, blocking valid petitions from going to the ballot at all or delaying votes.
Just 25 years ago, it took about 4,500 valid petition signatures to propose an ordinance and twice that number for a referendum. Both seem like reasonable figures. Kansas City should aim to set the bar at that level.
Petition-gatherers would complain bitterly at a requirement for more signatures. To them, we offer a compromise: At the same time Kansas City raises the signature threshold, it should prohibit the City Council from playing any role in how or when a successful petition goes on the ballot.
The whole point of the petition process is to circumvent elected officials, not to engage them. If a petition committee can meet a higher signature threshold, the issue should get a vote. As soon as possible.
Kansas Citians will need to amend their charter to improve the petition process. It won’t be easy. Voters have turned down previous changes, and Mayor Sly James has suggested he’s skeptical of another try.
Interestingly, under state law, voters could change the charter by petition, but it would probably take more than 30,000 signatures to do so. That threshold, for some reason, is impossibly high.
The City Council, and eventually voters, will have to do the work. Some have indicated a willingness to do so.
The effort should begin immediately, with the goal of offering a petition charter amendment to voters by this November.