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Initiative changes put off

Assembly delays action on process

Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly agreed Tuesday to postpone action on an ordinance that would make key changes to the borough's initiative and referendum process.

Among other things, Ordinance 2007-32 would require a $100 fee for filing a petition application, which would be refunded if petitioning were approved.

Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs said she proposed the fee in response to receiving numerous, simultaneously filed petition applications on the same subject, a tactic she said she believes sponsors employ to ensure at least one clears certification.

Other proposed revisions to the borough code outlined in the ordinance would clarify language regarding who sponsors are and their duties with regard to collecting signatures, limit the number of sponsors, and put a cap on the number of signature booklets the clerk's office would have to produce for any particular petition drive.

Biggs has said that after verifying enough signatures to meet the requirements of the drive typically 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election verification efforts stop and the petition issue is certified ready for the ballot no matter how many more signatures were actually collected. She proposed producing 50 percent more signature books than necessary to accumulate the signatures needed.

Opponents charged that the fee, the limitation on books and other proposed changes run counter to the democratic principles of the constitutional right of citizen-driven lawmaking.

Vicki Pate, of Nikiski, a member of the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers, which has made frequent use of the initiative and referendum processes in the last few years, argued against the proposed changes from a historical perspective.

"Our founding fathers had the wisdom to make the initiative process difficult to prevent frivolous issues ending up on the ballot," she said. "They also had the foresight to put safeguards in place to prevent government from taking away this valuable right."

She noted that state statutes have no provision for limiting the number of sponsors or signature booklets.

"By limiting the number of booklets, a petition drive would truly be hampered," she said.

She also said the state does not limit state petition books, and actually provides sponsors with a template so that they can print more if need be.

Pate said it was always best to have as many people collecting signatures as possible.

"The act of doing something positive and proactive is empowering, allowing ordinary people to become involved in their government," she said.

She urged that provisions for adding new sponsors at any time remain in the borough code and that any limitation on booklets and reference to a fee be removed.

James Price, of Nikiski, also opposed the ordinance, saying changes were more than just housekeeping measures and that the ordinance "unduly restricts the initiative process."

Price, an ACT member, noted that the state's initiative process allows for issuing booklets to a prime sponsor who is authorized to redistribute them to other signature collectors. The borough code requires each sponsor to be responsible for the books issue to him or her. Price also said he believes the borough clerk broke the law during ACT's last initiative drive when she denied issuing more books.

ACT actually collected signatures on two related petitions this summer that proposed setting term limits on assembly and school board seats.

State law requires that the clerk prepare the books, but does not include a specific instruction to drop everything to tackle that task.

Colette Thompson, borough attorney, said the clerk did provide the requested petitions, but that she was simply unable to do so immediately when requested.

Biggs said Wednesday that ACT members had requested 50 more books for each petition late on a Thursday. She told them she would have to copy and produce the 100 books and that they would be ready by Monday morning. They were.

Ruby Kime Denison, an ACT member, acknowledged Wednesday that the books were available by the following Monday, but at that point sponsors had just one full day left Tuesday on which to collect signatures before having to submit them to the clerk. Denison said some of the books might not have been picked up that Monday. Biggs said very few were.

Biggs already had produced twice the number of 30-signature booklets necessary to collect the necessary 1,503 valid signatures prior to the Thursday request for more. She noted that petitioners likely would relish the public relations impact of turning in vastly more signatures than necessary, even though they would not be verified.

Biggs has said that the proposed changes to the borough code were necessary in order to have the process work smoothly.

"The intent and workings of the petitions have not changed at all," she said recently.

She did acknowledge that any number of booklets could be printed, but that would drive up costs, perhaps unnecessarily.

Assembly President Ron Long, of Seward, there was a delicate balancing act between ensuring the public's right to petition its government through this process of direct democracy and prudently managing taxpayer dollars.

ACT members also alleged that if there are flaws in the term limit proposition's language, part of the blame lies with the clerk's office for not providing what they believe is a statutory requirement to assist petitioners in framing petition and ballot ordinance verbiage.

Biggs insists that she did engage in back-and-forth dialogue about petition language, for example, ensuring petitioners adequately defined who among sitting assembly and school board members the term-limit initiatives would and would not apply to this year.

The assembly agreed that the ordinance should be postponed. It will be taken up again at the Oct. 9 meeting in Soldotna where further testimony is expected.

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



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