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Monday September 16, 2019
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Petition Paradox

It's easier to change the city's charter than its laws.

by Ken Garber

From the September, 2019 issue

Proponents of nonpartisan local elections are pondering a possible petition drive to bypass Mayor Taylor's veto of a June City Council resolution. They would need about 5,100 valid voter signatures to put a city charter amendment on the November 2020 ballot.

The charter is the right place to make such a change. But oddly, it's also much easier for citizens to shape than the less permanent city code.

Local climate activists recently found that out when they looked at petitioning to place a greenhouse-gas reduction ordinance on the ballot. After learning they'd need nearly 8,900 signatures to ask voters to change the city code, they quickly ruled it out. (A charter amendment couldn't include the detailed rules they wanted.)

It wasn't always this way. In the 1980s, petition drives placed ordinances for rental housing weatherization, a Nicaraguan sister city, and rent control on the ballot. (Rent control was defeated, but the others passed). Yet there hasn't been a successful ordinance petition since.

Blame a historical quirk. The charter specifies that putting an ordinance on the ballot requires valid signatures from registered voters representing "not less than 20% of all the votes cast for the office of Mayor at the most recent mayoral election." When that rule it was adopted, the city held a stand-alone election in April, with relatively low turnouts: In 1988, 20,694 votes were cast for mayor, so an ordinance petition would have required about 4,100 signatures.

But in 1992, a charter amendment switched elections from April to November--greatly increasing turnout. Last November, 44,434 people cast votes for mayor. As a result, putting an ordinance on the ballot now takes 75 percent more signatures than a charter amendment (which is governed by state law).

It's almost impossible to get 8,900 signatures in a city Ann Arbor's size--and after next year's presidential election, the bar is likely to be even higher.     (end of article)


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