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ABQ voters may be asked to OK changes in petition rules

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Special elections triggered by petition drives have cost Albuquerque taxpayers more than $1.2 million over the last 13 months.

Now the mayor and City Council say they are preparing to ask voters to overhaul the initiative process, which would require an amendment to the City Charter.

Advocacy groups on both the left and the right have used petition drives in the past year to craft their own legislation and get it directly before voters without vetting from city attorneys or the City Council.

Two of the three initiatives faced significant legal questions about how – or whether – they would be enforced.

Mayor Richard Berry is now calling for a communitywide discussion on amending the City Charter, though he isn’t supporting any specific change at this point. The debate ought to include whether to increase the number of signatures required to bring forth a ballot measure and whether to continue holding special elections within 90 days of a successful petition, he said.

The city ought to move quickly before the next initiative pops up, Berry said.

“It’ll be something next,” he said, “and who knows what that will be? I guarantee you there will be more.”

Over the past year, voters have headed to the polls three times to consider legislation initiated through a petition drive: an increase in the minimum wage, a change to the city’s requirement for runoff elections and an anti-abortion ordinance.

The abortion proposal failed last week. The others passed.

City Councilors Ken Sanchez and Brad Winter plan to craft a charter amendment addressing the future of petition initiatives in Albuquerque. They’re still writing the proposal.

Winter said the two are in the early stages of coming up with a proposal.

“We’ve got to look at something,” he said.

Sanchez said he wants to establish a legal-review committee that would examine proposed initiatives and recommend whether they should be allowed to move forward.

He is also open to discussing the charter requirement that an election be held within 90 days of a successful petition drive. Instead, the initiative could just go before voters during the next regularly scheduled election. The idea, Sanchez said, would be to ensure the city isn’t forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a special election involving legislation that’s illegal anyway.

He doesn’t support boosting the signature requirement.

“I don’t think that’s a problem,” Sanchez said. “I admire people who are able to get that amount of signatures in that amount of time.”

Under the current rules, supporters of an initiative must gather signatures equal to at least 20 percent of the average turnout during the last four regular municipal elections or 20 percent of the turnout in the last election, whichever is greater. They have 60 days to do it.

Over the past year, the requirement has been 12,091 signatures.

The minimum wage proposal, adopted by voters last year, spawned legal questions over its enforcement.

The wage ordinance includes language saying employees can file civil litigation if they aren’t paid the required amount, or the city attorney can enforce the ordinance. That led to confusion over just who was responsible for carrying out the ordinance.

The abortion proposal also faced legal questions. Similar proposals – prohibiting most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy – have been struck down elsewhere, attorneys said, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico vowed to fight the measure if it passed.

Sanchez said he hopes the proposal he and Winter are working on will be introduced at a City Council meeting next month and go on the ballot next year or in 2015.

“The voters will have the final say-so if we can get it on the ballot,” Sanchez said.

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