ACT members oppose changes to initiative process

Posted: Sunday, August 26, 2007

Members of the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers say proposed changes in the way initiatives and referenda petitions are handled by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerks' office may violate state statute and go against the spirit of the petition process.

ACT member Mike McBride questioned whether the borough had authority under state law to as amendments propose limit the number of sponsors a ballot measure petition drive may have, and whether the borough code could limit the number of petition booklets printed.

"We think the borough attorney's answer to these questions would be very interesting," McBride said the night of the Aug. 21 assembly meeting.

As proposed, Ordinance 2007-33 introduced by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and set for hearing Sept. 18, would make several amendments to the borough code regarding petitions. Among these is an amendment to delete a phrase currently allowing additional sponsors to be added to the original list of sponsors before petition signatures are filed.

Deleting the phrase would effectively prevent adding new petition sponsors, meaning that only the original sponsors would be authorized to collect signatures. State law requires at least 10 sponsors of a petition application, though there could theoretically be any number.

McBride said state law clearly allows for adding new sponsors at a later time.

On Friday borough Deputy Attorney Holly Montague agreed, saying that a closer reading of state statute showed adding new sponsors before petition signature booklets are submitted for verification is permitted.

The existing phrase is improperly located in a section of code dealing specifically with the application for petition, not the petition itself, and that has caused confusion, Montague said. An amendment proposing deletion of the clause from its current location, and the inclusion of a clause elsewhere clearly indicating additional sponsors are permitted would be forthcoming, she said.

"State law allows adding sponsors anytime before petitions are filed," Montague said. "It seems the Legislature knew the difference between application (for a petition drive) and a petition."

ACT members also took issue with a proposed amendment that would limit the number of petition signature booklets the clerk's office must publish.

According to Biggs, no matter how many signatures are actually collected, once the clerk's office has verified the number necessary to send an initiative or referendum to the ballot, verification of still more signatures is unnecessary, and all counting stops. Thus, producing an unlimited supply of booklets is a waste of time and money.

But petitioners often like having large numbers of booklets out in the public to make signature collecting easier, and because there is public relations benefit in submitting numbers of signatures far in excess of what is necessary to win a position on the ballot.

There is another reason.

ACT member Vicki Pate told the assembly Aug. 21 that petitions are a little like buffets people get excited at the prospect, but often can't finish what is on their plates.

"That happens with the initiative process. People get very excited and get five or 10 books and then they realize how much work it (collecting names) is and they aren't able to finish," she said. Arguing for no limit to the number of books, Pate even suggested that members of the public be allowed to print their own at their own expense under certain guidelines.

Under proposed amendments, the clerk would be required to publish no more than 50 percent more booklets than are necessary for collecting the required number of signatures. If, for instance, the required number of signatures (typically, 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election) were 1,500, the clerk would publish books sufficient to collect 2,250 names.

Montague said that in such a case, if petition sponsors were ensuring that signers are properly filling in all the necessary data, it would be highly improbable for the clerk to discover more than 750 unverifiable or otherwise ineligible signatures out of 2,250.

But what if more sponsors sign up to collect signatures than there are books available?

"That's a good question," Montague said.

However, once there are more booklets in circulation than are needed, she noted, sponsors should be more concerned with collecting signatures than adding to the sponsor list.

In the past, booklets have been returned bearing only a few signatures, or sometimes, not turned in at all.

"Why mass-produce booklets that aren't being filled in?" she said. There must be a reasonable limit on the number of booklets published. It is a matter of efficiency and expense, she said.

ACT members have noted that collecting signatures is more difficult when collection periods do not coincide with large public events like fairs where great numbers of potential signers are present in one place. That might be an argument for a multiplicity of books.

Montague disagreed, saying it was up to sponsors of initiative and referendum drives to time their petition applications to take advantage of upcoming events. That is not the borough's job, she said.

Another proposed amendment would require that the sponsor to whom the clerk issues a booklet be the same person collecting signatures. Biggs said that new clause merely clarifies what is already a code requirement.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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