A small citizens committee has injected itself yet again into a crucial community decision.
Citizens for Responsible Government has filed a petition with the Kansas City clerk, expressing its intention to gather signatures that would force a citywide vote on a planned convention hotel downtown.
If the petition is valid — and survives any legal challenges — the group would have until early June, roughly, to gather 3,400 signatures and force the vote.
Such a referendum might push back construction of the hotel for six months to a year. If it’s built at all.
We support the new hotel. The project will continue the progress of rebuilding Kansas City’s downtown. The taxpayer investment should be minimal — some other cities have raised taxes to build convention hotels.
We also support the initiative and referendum petition process. But this latest effort highlights the ongoing dysfunction of placing every important city decision on hold, subject to the whims of unelected groups.
This has to change. The time to fix the petition process is here.
It is commonly known, yet it bears repeating: Our nation is not a direct democracy. We don’t hold expensive, unproductive plebiscites on issues.
Instead, we elect people to make decisions. We pay them good money. If we don’t like their choices, we can elect different officeholders next time. The system generally works.
There are times when the people need to circumvent their elected leaders, which is why the petition process exists. But it should be used sparingly, not as a tool to regularly render elected officials irrelevant.
That’s precisely how some people are using petitions today. It takes only 1,700 valid signatures to place an issue before voters, an irresistible lure for CFRG and other groups to force repeated votes on already-decided issues. It takes 3,400 signatures to force a referendum on a council-passed ordinance.
CFRG says taxpayers are providing too much of the hotel’s financing. Fine. Run for office. Win. Make that case. Stop delaying projects and progress with citywide votes on questions elected representatives have already addressed.
Sitting council members and Mayor Sly James have complained bitterly about alleged abuse of the petition process and the low threshold for signatures.
But they are not blameless. They have refused to ask voters to raise the petition signature thresholds to reasonable, predictable levels.
That should change now. The council has until the end of May to offer a proposal for the August ballot that would set higher, fixed levels for initiative and referendum petitions.
A quarter century ago, it took 4,500 signatures for an initiative. That would be a good place to start. We would also support a higher level — say, 7,000 signatures — to force a referendum.
And we support language making public votes automatic if petitioners collect the required signatures.
The council should push for this needed fix. If it won’t, elected officials should stop complaining about a low petition threshold usurping their authority.
August would be a good time to vote, and it would be cheap. At least three other questions — on the streetcar, mass transit and a higher minimum wage — are already on that ballot.
All were put there by petition.