Council nixes candidate’s proposal to ask votersOne mayoral candidate would like to know exactly what voters want from local government, but finding out what that is wasn’t acted on by the city council Tuesday night.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
One mayoral candidate would like to know exactly what voters want from local government, but finding out what that is wasn’t acted on by the city council Tuesday night.
With only a little more than a month until the ballots for the April election must be set for printing, councilors weren’t inclined to create a committee to place a variety of questions on the ballot.
Don Raihala, one of four candidates vying to be the city’s next mayor, proposed establishing a committee to gather questions from the public for consideration when voters cast their ballots April 5.
The “Fill the Ballot Initiative” would have allowed the council to use about 48 inches of unused space on the ballot to allow voters to weigh in on issues the public brings forth, Raihala said.
However, establishing a committee, appointing members and gathering questions from the public would likely exceed the city’s deadlines for printing the ballot. In the past, establishing committees, finding members to serve on those panels and making those appointments typically can take several months. Even when the council expedited the creation of a task force to consider a proposal for a city-run ambulance service, it took nearly a month just to appoint the members.
“I’m not sure what they’re asking for,” said Councilor Mick MacKenzie, who questioned if such a proposal is unusual and what cost might be associated with it.
The cost would be minimal said City Clerk Terri Kalan. She said it would cost no more to print the ballots, but there would be additional costs for publication — required by state law — depending on the length of the questions.
“Usually when there’s a referendum brought forward it’s for a pressing issue,” she said. She cited the example of school bond referenda.
While the council has used advisory referenda in the past, such as when the council was considering a change from a mayoral-council form of government to having a city manager working under the direction of the council in the early 1990s, it has been rare for the council to put such questions to the voters.
Douglas County has been more inclined in recent years to utilize advisory referenda concerning issues like health care, funding of the state court system and state spending, issues over which county supervisors have no direct control.
Over the last decade or so, advisory referenda designed to direct local government have been initiated by citizen-driven petitions, including a petition brought by Brule resident Darryl Helenius attempted to reduce the size of the county board — voters defeated the measure by a mere 18 of the 7,084 votes cast. Other petition initiatives have included one by Raihala — who made an unsuccessful attempt when he ran out of time to gather signatures to get voters’ opinions on the November ballot concerning city spending on a high-speed rail proposal — and one by a group of citizens including mayoral candidate Kevin Peterson to bring direct legislation to the voters in 2000 to control spending for a new city hall.
The council in 2000 chose to ignore the successful petition drive that would have capped spending at $3 million, and decided to spend $4.1 million to move into the county’s Government Center before voters had a chance to weigh in.
When voters finally cast ballots on the issue a few months later, they overwhelmingly approved the spending cap.
Peterson said referenda questions can be a useful tool, and one he would have considered utilizing again had the city approved building a $10 million “bridge to nowhere,” which would have been the city’s commitment to a $330 million golf resort on Clough Island. The development proposal died on its own in 2007.
“They should be used when considering very expensive projects,” Peterson said, but he admitted he thought the proposal before the council Tuesday night was politically motivated. Peterson has long advocated on behalf of residents, most recently convincing the city to cut its interest rate on delinquent sewage fees from 18 percent to 12 percent. It was a six-year effort to convince the city’s finance committee that the higher interest rate was unfair.
“Time is not on our side,” said Councilor Greg Mertzig, who liked the idea of allowing the public to weigh in on issues. Mertzig, who had contemplated an advisory referendum on the city-run ambulance service — an idea he never pursued — suggested it might be a good idea to consider for the future, when the city has more time to get the issues on the ballot.
Kalan said she has about a week to get information to County Clerk Sue Sandvick following the primary Feb. 15 to prepare ballots for the April 5 election.
Raihala said he is disappointed the council received and filed his proposal rather than acting on it, but he’d still be willing to present specific referenda questions for the council to consider before the ballot deadlines.
The public can offer suggestions for advisory questions at Raihala’s blog at http://donaldraihala.areavoices.com or visit www.votefordon.com.