Monday, February 23, 2015

Iowa City Charter: Reviewing The Review

Iowa City's decennial charter review process is nearing its conclusion, and a "public input forum" is scheduled for 6:30 Tuesday at City Hall.

As longtime fans know, I applied for the charter review commission, and presented a very detailed platform that won me exactly zero votes from the council.

But I've kept up to speed on the process and used this little soapbox from time to time.  My wholesale rewrite was never in the cards, of course, but I was hoping for some positive changes.

In the draft version of proposed changes posted last week, there's not a lot to review.

The biggest change that was ever under serious discussion was a directly elected mayor.  That's not in the draft. The only change to the role of mayor is allowing Der Burgermeister to place items on the agenda. I'm not sure how the city council handles agenda items now, but that seems like a fairly trivial power.

The big item of discussion seems to be how the city handles its initiative and referendum process, and it seems like there may be some changes.

Right now, for virtually all petitions under Iowa law, signatories need to be "eligible" electors - of age (that means 18, unless you want to stay in the bar late), a citizen, a non-felon, and a resident of the appropriate jurisdiction.

Iowa City's initiative process, however, sets the bar at the harder standard of "qualified" elector.  City staff - which, in Iowa City, largely runs the show - has historically interpreted this as "registered to vote at the exact same address you listed on the petition." And the city had devoted huge resources of staff time to cross-checking every single name against a fresh vote list, and striking names accordingly.

The effect of this fell heavily on highly mobile populations, or people less experienced with the political process and thus less engaged.  That is to say: students.  Which matters a lot if the petition topics are things like bars (2007, 2010, 2013) and rent control (1977, 1983).

This, despite multiple changes in voter registration law in the four decades since home rule kicked in. In the 80s, the law changed so you could change address on Election Day.  Then in 2008, Iowa finally got Election Day voter registration.

Some of the old guard are still arguing against the change.  Bob Elliott, a former council member who missed commission membership by one vote, argues "If a citizen doesn't care enough about their government to register to vote, why should I care what they want?"

But the law no longer even assumes that a person HAS to be registered to vote in advance.  The law assumes that you can show up on Election Day, with a little documentation or with someone to vouch for you, register then, and immediately vote.

So "qualified" elector had been on shaky ground for a while, and may finally go away.  But there's a qualification to that.

Along with striking the word "qualified" and replacing it with "eligible," the draft amendments re-define the signature threshold for initiatives.  Under the current language, in place since the charter was passed in 1973, the bar was 25% of the vote in the prior city election, not less than 2500.  Most elections have come in under 10,000 voters, so 2500 is the normal bar.

The proposed amended language would make the threshold 5.33% of the city's census population, rounded up to the next hundred.  For this decade, that means 3700.

So the signature bar is half again higher.  Or is it?

Assuming  - and this is the critical assumption - assuming both pieces of language pass, it's kind of a wash.  In past petition drives, organizers had to collect hundreds of extra signatures to account for those that would be crossed off.  They also had to register hundreds of extra voters just to be on the safe side. A good practice, since eventually they'd need to get those voters to actually vote.  But it slowed down the process, and you'd lose people who had time to sign but not to fill out a form.

So to get 2500 GOOD signatures, you'd probably have to get about half again as many raw signatures.  3700 "eligible" electors vs. 2500 "qualified" electors is roughly a break even.

I'm sure some will argue with me, in favor of the easier process AND the lower bar.  But my experience has been that the number of signatures hasn't been a barrier.  I've only seen one effort fail at getting enough signatures, and that failure was their own bad organization and lack of work.

No, for me, "eligible" vs. "qualified" was always about The Principle Of The Thing.  So it feels like a win, a rare acknowledgement by the city establishment that not everyone in town is an east side home owner with a permanent and settled lifestyle.

(Now if they would just acknowledge that 18 year olds are adults.  No, that would be a big win.  This is just a little win.  But in the context of city government in Iowa City, even little wins are a big deal.)

If these changes pass, the principle prevails with little cost.  Petition drives will have to make about the same level of effort they did before.  And we'll save some city staff time (and time = $) on the striking signatures end, though I think City Clerk Marian Karr actually enjoys it. "Your dorm room number doesn't match? BAM! Sharpie through your name, kid!"

The proposed language also moves the petitioning period a month later which is good; anything that gets things closer to election day is good for campaigns targeting hard to target demographics.

One problem, though. In the event a petition is challenged, decisions are made by a three member board: the mayor, another council member, and the city clerk.  I have a problem with an unelected staffer making policy decisions affecting people's right to petition the government. Especially THIS particular unelected staffer. (I'm saying this as an unelected staffer to an elected official myself.)  The third seat should instead go to a third council member.

There are some other language changes to city council filing.  The "change" in deadlines looks like cleanup language to me, amending the charter to incorporate changes in state law.  It would also move the point of filing your papers from the city clerk to the county auditor - a change I support and would support for all elections.  Auditors and the Secretary of State are just better equipped and more prepared to handle the kinds of questions that come up with nomination papers.

The preamble is rewritten and the name of the "police citizens review board" is changed to "community police review board," changes that feel more semantic than substantive.
And last, city manager severance pay is also addressed, changing from two months to "as provided by contract." Feels like a ripple effect from the brief administration of Michael Lombardo, fired from the job in 2009 after just under a year. (His predecessor, longtime manager Steve Atkins, is a commission member.)

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