Despite past and recent abuses, the initiative petition is a valuable way for Kansas Citians to fight entrenched powers at City Hall and in the corporate community.
Citizens have used the process over the last 30 years to try to stop economic development plans and spending proposals by city officials but also to promote a zoo tax and, most infamously, plenty of public transit projects.
Initiative petitions are in the news again for several reasons.
Critics of the proposed downtown 800-room hotel have gathered enough signatures to force the City Council to decide whether to ask voters if they approve of the public support given to the project.
Also, light-rail activist Clay Chastain has announced he wants to collect signatures to put another of his ultra-costly, doomed-from-the-start transit ideas to a public vote.
It’s easy to get on the ballot. The low threshhold set for initiative petitions is about 1,700 registered voters. The number was established by the pathetic turnout in the 2015 mayoral race.
The many critics of initiative petitions say current law allows almost anything onto the ballot. In addition, skeptics correctly note that Kansas Citians elect a mayor and council every four years to decide how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. Plus, the council also asks voters how they want to use funds for, say, public safety and whether they want to issue bonds for water and sewer projects, which lead to higher water and sewer bills in the future.
But the council has put its fair share of unneeded items on the ballot, too, including past tax increases for flood control (rejected by voters) and a much larger Fire Department (which was approved).
So why shouldn’t the people have the opportunity to make their own requests of voters?
Which brings us to the dirty secret of the entire initiative petition process over the last three decades I’ve been watching it: The public almost always rejects what the petition supporters want to do.
In the 1980s, voters approved a controversial Plaza-area development despite petitions against it. In the 1990s, voters backed the initial Power & Light downtown development when some citizens also opposed it. Voters also generally backed City Hall by killing all but one of Chastain’s public transit ideas over the years.
The petitions have failed for any number of reasons.
Sometimes signature collection efforts fall short. City Hall also has given in to the petitioners’ demands in other cases, such as a year ago when it rescinded a plan designed to reduce the city workforce after council member John Sharp led a campaign to stop the move.
City officials have refused to put petitions on the ballot. That happened in Chastain’s case and might happen with the recent hotel demand; the city lawyer says it’s legally too late to stop the project.
City Hall also used the city charter to essentially kill the one Chastain plan that voters did embrace about a decade ago.
Finally, the courts have stepped in and prevented a petition with sufficient signatures from moving forward. That was true of a positive bid to place the zoo sales tax on a ballot a few years ago in Platte County, where thousands of Kansas Citians live.
Backers of these and other petitions, however, rightly point out that some of their efforts were not in vain.
The Plaza-area project in the 1980s never took off after being delayed by the public vote. The original, poorly financed Power & Light plan also died, eventually to be replaced by the current project pushed by a different redeveloper.
Even Chastain’s failed light-rail proposals pushed the city to put its own plans before the people, who voted them down, too.
In a more recent case, a successful petition forced the City Council to agree that voters should have the final say in whether public funds can be spent on the massive renovation or makeover of Kansas City International Airport.
It was a small victory; the public has always decided whether to issue bonds for KCI improvements.
Still, as it has so many times before, the initiative petition process brought lots of attention to a high-profile matter. That’s ultimately a good way to keep the democratic spirit alive in Kansas City.