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Resident Petitions, Initiatives, and Vetoes

Mandi Jo Hanneke

We’re going to take you back for a few posts to the meat of the Charter and continue to explain what’s in it. Today, I’m going to talk about all the legalese in Article 8, Public Participation Mechanisms.

The Commission added a right to an Open Meeting of the Residents. Any 200 residents (not just registered voters) can gather together to force the Council, School Committee, or Library Trustees to hold a meeting on a specific topic. The residents must be allowed to speak at the meeting. Basically, it’s a way to force a conversation on a specific topic between residents and elected officials.

But, say, for example, Mothers Out Front wanted to propose their Zero Energy bylaw to the Council, instead of just talking about it. How would they go about doing that?

Well, they have three options: Resident Free Petition, Group Petition, and Initiative Measure. (I’ll get to the Voter Veto later.)

First, there’s the Resident Free Petition. One or more residents can write to the Town Council and ask that it take action (pass a bylaw, propose a bylaw, propose a resolution, etc.). The Council can choose to act or not act on the petition (i.e. the Council doesn’t have to add it to the agenda). It may not seem like much, but this option isn’t even currently available with respect to Town Meeting.

Second, there’s the Group Petition. This is similar to the Resident Free Petition, but the Council is required hold a public hearing and then act (vote on) the petition. To trigger this requirement, 150 registered voters must sign it.

It sounds like a lot, but 100 signatures were needed for the Zero Energy Bylaw to be placed on the Fall Warrant and 200 were required to call the Special Town Meeting on the school bond issue last January.

The third option is the Initiative Measure. This section (8.3) can be used when the group asking for passage of a measure wants to potentially give the voters a direct say in its passage. The Council has the opportunity to pass the measure after a public hearing. But, if it doesn’t (or passes an amended measure), the residents can finish the process by taking the question directly to the voters.

To get to the Council, an Initiative Measure needs 250 signatures. The Council then must act on it. If the Council passes the measure without amendment, the process is done.

But, if the Council fails to pass it, fails to vote at all, or passes an amended version, the group can choose to gather more signatures to put the question on the ballot. They would have 30 days to gather a total of 5% of registered voters’ signatures. (1,064 signatures as of the last charter commission meeting).

So, what’s the Voter Veto? It’s similar to the Initiative Measure, but used when Town Council passes something that opponents believe is against the will of the residents. Then, the residents have 14 days after passage to gather a total of 5% of registered voters’ signatures to place the question on the ballot.

If either an Initiative Measure or a Voter Veto measure makes it to the ballot, then a turnout of 20% of registered voters is required for success.

Now, you might be thinking: the signature requirements are higher than now, aren’t they?

Sort of, but the Charter may actually make it slightly easier for measures to pass at the ballot box (and get them there in the first place).

The equivalent method to Initiatives and Voter Vetoes in the current Town Government Act is referenda. A resident must first put an item on the Town Meeting warrant, gathering either 10, 100 or 200 signatures (Annual Town Meeting, Special Fall Town Meeting, or calling a separate Special Town Meeting, respectively).

Then, if the group doesn’t like the outcome, they have only 5 days from the close of the Meeting to collect signatures of 5% of active voters in Town (between around 580 and 755 signatures during the past year), instead of 14 or 30 days in the proposed charter.

In short, the proposed charter allows 3 to 6 times the number of days to gather less than double the number of signatures.

Currently, for the referenda to be successful at the ballot box, 18% of active voters must vote to approve it, and the “no” votes don’t count towards the 18%. The proposed charter requires 20% of registered voters to vote in the election, on either side.

Let’s look at specific numbers from the recent school borrowing referendum. After Representative Town Meeting failed to authorize the borrowing, 829 signatures needed to be gathered in just 5 days. Under the proposed charter, supporters of the borrowing would have had 30 days to gather 1,098 signatures.

On Election Day, the measure garnered 2,746 yes votes (56%) and 2,147 no votes (44%), for a total of 4,893 votes cast.

Under the current system, it failed two ways: it did not reach two-thirds support and 18% of active voters did not vote “yes” (2,983 yes votes minimum).

Under the proposed charter, it still would have failed because it didn’t reach two-thirds in favor. But, the turnout requirement would have been met by more than 500 votes, since at the time, there were 21,946 registered voters (4,390 total votes minimum).

As you can see, there are a number of ways residents can petition the Council, or even challenge its votes. They are challenging, but not impossible, and no more burdensome than the current system.

Comments 5

  1. How is it possible that it will be easier to overturn a vote by going from 18% of active voters to overturn a decision to requiring 20% of registered voters? There are more registered voters than active voters. And when was the last time the current 18% threshold has been met? Every line of this flawed Charter proposal reduces the power of Amherst citizens. This is less democracy, not more.

    1. Post
      Author

      The post, just above these comments, gives specifics as to why it is possible that the Charter proposal provides an easier mechanism to pass or overturn legislation on a ballot than the current Town Government Act, including that the current 18% requirement is a requirement of “yes” votes, not total votes, whereas the proposed 20% requirement is of total votes, not just “yes” votes.

      There is even a specific example given showing that the turnout requirement in the proposed charter would have been met in March’s referendum vote (the turnout requirement under the current Town Government Act was not met):

      “Let’s look at specific numbers from the recent school borrowing referendum. …

      On Election Day, the measure garnered 2,746 yes votes (56%) and 2,147 no votes (44%), for a total of 4,893 votes cast.

      Under the current system, it failed two ways: it did not reach two-thirds support and 18% of active voters did not vote “yes” (2,983 yes votes minimum).

      Under the proposed charter, it still would have failed because it didn’t reach two-thirds in favor. But, the turnout requirement would have been met by more than 500 votes, since at the time, there were 21,946 registered voters (4,390 total votes minimum).”

  2. I need to question the claim that “Under the proposed charter, [the school vote special election] still would have failed because it didn’t reach two-thirds in favor.”

    The current town charter did require 2/3 in this case: “2.43 Determination of result: A question put to the voters at large under the provisions of this section shall be determined by a vote of the same proportion of voters voting thereon as would have been required by law had the question been finally determined at a representative town meeting.”

    However, I can’t find this provision anywhere in the charter proposal, i.e. nowhere that I can find does it state that if a 2/3 vote was needed in the council, e.g. re: zoning or prop. 2 1/2 override, then a 2/3 vote in favor would also be needed in the voter veto election. In the section on voter veto, pages 25-26, it explains the 20% requirement but there is no mention that the required majority in the voter veto election would have to reflect the required percentage in the council vote, if that requirement differed from the normal simple majority.

    Please point me to the place in the charter where this is dealt with – if not, it is another huge deficiency in the charter proposal, in my opinion.

    – Steve George, Precinct 4

    1. Post
      Author

      In the proposed charter, the failure of the Town Council to authorize the bond and a subsequent challenge, would have had to be done under Section 8.3, Initiative Measures, not 8.4, Voter Veto. 8.4 applies only when the Council passes something. 8.3 is what is used when the Council refuses to pass something. Section 8.3(h), has the language of “If a majority of votes case on the question, or other affirmative percent as required by general laws or this Charter”, which is where the required 2/3rd approval would come in. Section 8.4 doesn’t have a similar requirement because the Council would have already adopted a measure by the required quantum, and therefore, the section is seeking confirmation that the Town’s residents approve of the action, which only requires a majority.

      The current Town Government Act has the two types (trying to overturn something RTM passed, and trying to enact something RTM didn’t pass) rolled into one section. That’s why they are worded slightly different.

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