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Editorial: Something’s gotta give in city petition elections

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Albuquerque City Councilors Ken Sanchez and Brad Winter are working on a charter amendment that would reform the city’s petition-initiative process, with the goal of getting it before city voters in 2014 or 2015.

How many poorly worded ballot proposals, put forth by a fraction of voters and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for each special election, can we have between now and then?

Because we’ve already had three in just over a year, at a cost of more than $1.2 million.

Exhibit A: A proposal to increase the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour within the city limits was approved in the Nov. 6, 2012, general election. The wording was unclear as to whether employees would have to sue to get the higher wage or the city attorney would take action in cases of non-compliance, and it included annual automatic increases business groups are still trying to get revised.

Exhibit B: A proposal to require a runoff election between the top two candidates if none gets 50 percent was approved by a special March 11 ballot. The old requirement was 40 percent, a much more achievable majority in nonpartisan races that routinely draw more than two candidates.

Exhibit C: A proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks was rejected on a special Nov. 19 ballot. In addition to confusing construction in which a vote “for” was in fact a vote against late-term abortions, there was ongoing debate on the constitutionality of the measure, with each side citing legal opinions.

Each initiative required just 12,091 signatures – 20 percent of the average turnout during the last four regular city elections or 20 percent of the turnout in the last election, whichever is greater – to get on the ballot and possibly force a costly special election in a city of more than 550,000.

And that makes the underlying decision before the Council and then voters whether Albuquerque should be governed by special-interest groups well-organized enough to quickly gather enough signatures to get their issue on historically low-turnout municipal ballots.

Mayor Richard Berry, who is not backing any specific revision, is right that change is warranted. “It’ll be something next,” he says, “and who knows what that will be? I guarantee you there will be more.”

How about cutting taxes while spending more on worthy causes from A-Z? Welcome to the unworkable budgetary challenge that has almost bankrupted referendum-mad California.

Just as unworkable is Sanchez’s well-intentioned proposal to set up a legal-review committee to examine proposed initiatives. If the anti-abortion measure showed nothing else, it’s that there are as many legal opinions as there are lawyers. And if the Supreme Court’s rejection of California’s Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, has shown anything, it’s that the court system is the only real arbiter of legality.

While Sanchez has only admiration for “people who are able to get that amount of signatures in that amount of time,” the reality is that having a small fraction of the electorate first determining what will be voted on and then casting ballots is a poor way to exercise democracy. At a minimum that threshold must be increased.

Sanchez is correct that timing is also ripe for revision. The current charter requirement is that an election be held within 90 days of a successful petition drive. Special elections run $500,000 to $750,000, a cost that taxpayers should not have to bear when regular elections are already on the calendar.

Sanchez and Winter plan to introduce something at a City Council meeting next month. Fellow councilors would serve their constituents and all city taxpayers and residents well by giving it careful consideration and input.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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