Sunday, June 18, 2017

Reform Las Cruces's Initiative Process

City officials should include the initiative process among the city charter amendments the Las Cruces City Council will consider shortly.

In 2014, the process of raising the minimum wage satisfied no one. Business leaders complained that proponents were really motivated by the political desire to get the issue on the ballot. Proponents said businessfolks ignored the issue for months, then requested “dialogue” just for delay. Then the council flouted the City Charter. The Charter was not specific on what happened next, and councilors could ignore it with impunity.

We need change.

First, require proponents to present the ordinance to the city council before gathering signatures. Give the council 45 days to act. Let councilors discuss the merits of the ordinance. Let the city attorney provide legal advice regarding the form of the ordinance and conflicts with other laws, to ensure that any resulting ordinance will be effective. Let everyone discuss possible compromise versions.

The proposal would get a full airing, with all parties heard. The community might reach a consensual solution, rather than experience a divisive signature-gathering process and special vote. Proponents might accept a reasonable compromise rather than make huge efforts for a slightly better version of their ordinance.

But compromise would not be required. Proponents would still decide. Absent an agreement within 45 days, proponents could freely gather signatures. Everyone would have more complete knowledge; and voters would understand the issues more clearly. The vetting should make the ordinance that much stronger.

The Charter is clear that, given sufficient signatures, the council must either adopt the requested ordinance or schedule a popular vote. Without change. The voters dictate to the council.
In 2014, some huffy councilors insisted deciding such issues was their prerogative. That obeying the clear meaning of the Charter would be abdicating their duties.

Amend the Charter to state what should be obvious: that an initiative-induced ordinance should last more than a day. A council required to adopt it April 1 can't rescind it April 10, mocking the citizens.
But if councilors must adopt it, how long must they leave it unchanged? The Charter shouldn't require that an ordinance that damages the us must stand forever -- or until another initiative undoes it.

Provide that: (a) during an initial period (six months? nine? 12?) the council couldn't rescind or substantively amend the ordinance except based on changed circumstances (including that the ordinance isn't working or has very negative side-effects); (b) during a second period, (until eighteen months after enactment? A year? Two?) the council could amend or rescind, but opponents of the change could challenge the proposed change, arguing circumstances hadn't changed; then (c) after two years, or perhaps three, the council would be as free to amend or rescind the ordinance as with any other ordinance.

This would respect an ordinance demanded by the people without locking us into a bad result.
During, say, the first nine months the council could only rescind the ordinance only after filing a declaratory relief action in district court stating their intention and allowing opponents to argue that no changed circumstances or disastrous results justified overturning the people's will. From nine to 24 months, the burden would shift: the council could act, but if opponents filed a court action challenging that, the council would suspend the effective date of its action. After two years, the council would have full discretion, as usual.

We have voter initiatives for good reasons. The council proved in 2014 that it will ignore the people's will and render those initiatives pointless. Will the council now accept some check against such abuse of power? 

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 18 June 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website the newspaper's website and on KRWG's website -- and KRWG will broadcast a spoken version of it at various times this coming week.]

[The Council meets Monday (19June) at  .m., and will discuss (without public-input, I'm told, because this is a first reading) amendments dealing with the recall process some folks tried to misuse a couple of years ago.  As I was pretty involved in the battle to prevent that misuse, I'm naturally happy to see the council take up improvements to that part of the Charter.  My view is that we should tighten the rules to make abuse more difficult, but not completely abandon the recall provision; but I'll deal with those issues in a later column or blog post.]

Mending the Fence  [copyright 2012 pgoodmanphotos]


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