Monday, April 15, 2013

Stop on Red Light - for now

Iowa City's red light camera vote is stalled for now. For NOW. Gregg Hennigan: 
The City Clerk’s Office said not enough eligible people signed a petition that would force the City Council to either adopt an ordinance outlawing red-light and speed cameras and drones or to send the matter to voters to decide. 

The petition needed to be signed by at least 2,500 registered Iowa City voters. Organizers submitted 3,322 signatures April 1, but City Clerk Marian Karr said Monday that only 2,106 were valid... 

“We think we can make up the difference easily,” said Aleksey Gurtovoy of Iowa City.
Iowa City's petition process is unique. All other petitions - to run for office, get a satellite site, demand a recount - require the signer to be an "eligible" elector. That means 18+, citizen, non-felon, resident of appropriate area. Obvious bad signatures like ones with Schaumburg addresses get crossed off, but otherwise a challenge to the petition needs to come from an opponent or other concerned citizen.

But the city home rule charter requires signers under the initiative/referendum process to be "qualified" electors. With election day voter registration in Iowa, it would seem that 18+ means 18+, citizen, non-felon, resident of appropriate area would be enough. But city staff interprets "qualified" as strictly as possible: already registered at current address. And city staff, at taxpayer cost, checks every. single. signature.

And using this strict interpretation city staff tossed roughly 1/3 of the signatures, gathered by a hard working well organized campaign, just months after everyone updated their registration address for a record turnout presidential election. Seems... kinda... a lot.
Petitioners have two days after receiving a mailed certificate of insufficiency from the city to declare their intent to get more signatures, and then they would have 15 more days to try to get enough people to sign the petition.
So step one: the petitioners have to get the 394 signatures that they're, in the city's opinion, short. Given their failure rate, that means more like 600 people who haven't signed before. And someone who signed may not know if their signature counted or not. So given that, set the bar X amount higher.

What then? It all may be in vain:
The petition organizers, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said they were seeking an initiative by proposing a measure for the City Council to consider. But City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes has characterized it as a referendum that asks the council to reconsider an existing law. A referendum petition must be filed within 60 days of the adoption of the measure in question or not until two years after adoption. The current petition would fall between those periods and not be timely.

Dilkes has said she would re-examine the matter with a successful petition. She said Monday that if a petition is deemed sufficient, she would provide a formal opinion to the council.
In other words: Go get your signatures, and THEN we'll tell you whether you wasted your time or not.

This isn't just one of those hypotheticals that lawyers don't like to answer; it's a live question. So why not just answer?

I'm just a clerk, not a lawyer like Eleanor, but I'm smart enough to spot a bad attitude. In my experience, city staff are more or less openly hostile to petitions. How dare you question Council, they seem to be thinking. And that's even more true when petitions are seen as coming from "students" or other undesirables. Rather than playing a strictly administrative role, Karr seems almost to have more of a decision-making authority, one more appropriately played by elected policy makers rather than hired staff.

Of course, part of that is the manager-driven style of government we get in a city with a part time council and no elected mayor. And, as I often mention, with no student elected since 1979 and no a middle aged energy executive taking a class doesn't count.

Both these issues - the initiative vs. referendum and especially the "qualified"/"eligible" question - smell like lawsuits waiting to happen. The latter in particular is a fight I've wanted someone to fight since the day election day registration took effect. To be honest, I care more about that than I do about the red light cameras themselves, on which I'm still fairly agnostic, and I'm wrestling with a lot of the same people over the justice center.

But I signed -- at least I think I did. Maybe Marian crossed my name off. Maybe tomorrow morning I'll call the city clerk's office at 356-5043, that's 356-5043, to verify that my signature was counted. Maybe everyone who thinks they signed should. If they have time to cross-check 3300 names and cross off 1200 of them, they certainly should have time to check yours.

Yeah, I got an attitude too. Least I admit it.

Meantime, the city charter is up for review next year. I'm planning to apply for a seat on the charter review commission and I think I'm spectacularly qualified. Any bets on my chances?

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