Several changes to the borough's initiative and referendum processes were approved by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly at its meeting Oct. 9, including one requiring sponsors to pay a $100 fee with each petition application.
Sponsors get that money back if their petition applications are approved, that is, if they meet application requirements and are given the go-ahead by the borough clerk to start collecting signatures. It is refunded regardless of whether the issue makes the ballot or not.
The assembly acted against the advice of it counsel, borough attorney Colette Thompson, who raised concerns that without a specific authorization in statute from the state authorizing a fee, the borough might be exceeding its authority by imposing one.
Spokespersons for the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers had argued against imposing even a refundable filing fee saying it would discourage use of the initiative process, the private citizen's access to the ballot.
ACT has used the petition process many times over the past several years in an attempt to effect changes the group's supporters desire, including such things as limits on taxes and caps on the amount the borough can spend on a capital project without a public vote.
Most recently, ACT successfully pushed two controversial ballot measures setting term limits for assembly and school board members.
The group has used what the borough have called a "scatter gun" approach to filing petition applications, often wording several versions slightly differently on the premise that one or more might become actual petition drives, or at least ensuring that one will meet borough application requirements.
Each application, however, requires time and cost on the part of the borough clerk's office. Assemblyman Gary Superman, of Nikiski, said he'd inquired of the clerk how much time is involved in handling initiatives.
"It came up to one-third of the borough clerk's time. That was not inclusive of materials or the legal department (costs)," he said. "So we are spending a lot of money here bending over backwards making sure that the group (ACT) has everything they need so that they can do their drives."
Superman noted that the $100 fee would not begin to cover the true costs.
Biggs said Thursday that since 2004, she has handled some 35 petitions for initiatives, referenda and recalls, the "vast majority" from ACT or from people who formed the political activist organization.
Borough Mayor John Williams said Tuesday that in the next budget he intended to add a line item on which he would detail how much ACT activities were costing the borough.
At the request of the clerk's office, the assembly also considered setting a limit on the number of petition signature books that must be printed. The clerk has said that once sufficient signatures are certified to meet the requirements to send an initiative to the ballot, no further counting is done. There was talk of limiting the number to 50 percent more, 100 percent more, and 200 percent more than needed.
During public comment, ACT member James Price chastened the assembly for considering such changes to the petition code.
"I don't think this ordinance, really, is going to serve the public at all. I think it was just a reaction to the displeasure of the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers using the initiative process to force the assembly to do things it doesn't want to do."
He said the best way to "poke a stick in the eye of the initiative process" was to limit the numbers of booklets available. That, he said, would run counter to state law.
In the end, the assembly did not amend that portion of the code, the net effect being that the number of books that might be published is unlimited.
Biggs said that typically, about 75 filled books (30 signature per booklet) are needed to meet ballot requirements, and that generally about 150 books are produced. Rarely are all ever needed by sponsors. She said her office and future petition sponsors would work together to ensure the number of excess books printed is limited.
Other amendments included language to ensure that the sponsor who circulates petition booklets is the same sponsor to whom those booklets were issued, and a clause allowing new sponsors to be added anytime up until the moment all the filled-in petition booklets are submitted to the clerk for signature certification.
Another amendment spelled out that the clerk has up to 10 days to accept or reject each booklet. Reasons for rejection would include evidence of disassembly and reassembly, missing pages, or incomplete sponsor affidavits.
Also left intact is a portion of the code that allows for a supplemental 10-day period in which to continue collecting signatures if during the regular period that goal had not been met.
There were a few amendments more technical in nature meant to make certification of signatures easier.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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