On Monday morning at the Ann Arbor City Club on Washtenaw Avenue, Pat Lesko announced an effort to place a proposal on the ballot that would amend the city charter. If successful, the effort, organized by GO Ask Voters, would change the process used to issue general obligation bonds.
Currently, it’s possible for voters to petition for a referendum on such a bond, if signatures from at least 10% of registered Ann Arbor voters are collected within 45 days after a notice of intent is published to issue the bond.
That’s a process outlined in Section 33 of the Revenue Bond Act of 1933 and used by organizers of Ask Voters First in the summer of 2008. They were pushing for a referendum (unsuccessfully) on the bonds issued for the city’s municipal center, which will be given its ceremonial groundbreaking this Friday.
The ballot initiative announced Monday would change the city charter to automatically include a voter referendum on general obligation bonds. Amendment of the city’s charter is a process governed by the Home Rule City Act 279 from 1909.
The law requires only 5% of registered voters to sign the petition, and allows for a year to complete the collection of signatures. After filing a petition with the city clerk’s office that organizers believe contains the requisite number of signatures, the city clerk has 45 days to verify the signatures, and “the clerk shall submit the proposed amendment to the electors of the city at the next regular municipal or general state election held in the city which shall occur not less than 90 days following the filing of the petition.”
Based on the the sum of registered voters in the precinct counts from November 2008 elections, there are about 106,450 registered voters in Ann Arbor, putting the threshold for a successful petition at 5,322 valid signatures.
The amendment to the charter, if ultimately successful, would add a new paragraph (k) to Chapter 8, section 8.17 of the Ann Arbor city charter:
No municipal bonds that are backed in whole or in part by the taxing power of the city shall be issued unless approved by vote of the electors at a general or special election. After the effective date of this amendment, measures for such bond issues limited in time or total amount shall be submitted to the electors, in the form of separate acts, without provision of amendment of this Charter, as authorizations or directions to the City Council. A majority of fifty-percent plus one of the electors is sufficient to authorize the bond issue.
Eleven people, including reporters from WEMU and The Ann Arbor Observer, gathered at the City Club to hear Lesko read a prepared statement and answer questions. From WEMU’s Andrew Cluley came a query about the hoped-for time frame for collecting the required number of signatures. Lesko said that she hoped to finish signature collection before the whole year was up, with the specific goal of having the referendum on November’s ballot. Counting 90 days backwards from November would make it an early August deadline.
Queried by The Chronicle about the possibility of completing the petition drive in time for the August primary elections, which would make for an early May deadline, Lesko said she didn’t think that was realistic. Responding to the hypothetical possibility that there were sufficient signatures early enough to provide a choice between the August primary elections versus the November general elections, Lesko said she’d prefer November – when more voters would turn out, which was in the spirit of the initiative, namely that it’s voters who should be more a part of decision-making.
We asked Lesko about the possibility that city council could itself decide to place the proposal for a charter amendment on the ballot (which is a second way, besides a petition drive, for such a proposal to appear on the ballot). Included in the scenario we asked her to consider was the idea that city councilmembers might decide that the initiative had a high probability of success (based on the roughly 5% threshold achieved by Ask Voters First inside of 45 days), that they could save everyone the trouble and expense of a petition drive, but could then put the proposal on the August ballot, if they thought it might dim the chances of success.
Lesko jokingly described the scenario as “Machiavellian,” but said that she wouldn’t necessarily assume that councilmembers wouldn’t want the measure to pass. She said she hoped that councilmembers would embrace the idea.
And that was a frequent theme to which Lesko appealed on Monday – the idea of collaboration of citizens with government. She said that she saw a parallel between the themes of Obama’s presidency – the notion that citizens should work with, not against government – and the ballot initiative.
In light of an April 5 fundraiser to be held at Vinology on Main Street from 5:30-7:00 p.m., we asked Lesko how funds would be spent in the campaign. Her answer: Education. That included, she said, printing, mailing, yard signs, and web hosting. To send 47,000 first-class mail pieces costs $19,000, she pointed out. The funds raised won’t be spent on paid petition circulators, she said.
Lesko said that they would be focusing on voters who had voted in the last three election cycles, citing a certain amount of dead wood in the voter registration files. She also indicated that the front-line educational strategy would not be to stand circulators on street corners, but rather to go door-to-door.
Lou Glorie also touched on the theme of education. She asked about the educational process for a bond issuance, on the assumption that the charter was changed. Her concern was that the city had somewhat of an advantage in getting their message out (that people should vote for the bond). Glorie wondered if there were any legal caps on what the city could spend to promote a bond issuance. Lesko said that the city had a marketing budget, but wasn’t aware of any caps.
The prepared statement Lesko read states that the current initiative is not about one building. So The Chronicle asked if it wouldn’t be fair to trace part of the impetus for mounting the initiative to one building, namely the municipal center. Lesko responded by relating her experience in collecting around 100 signatures in the Ask Voters First campaign, which asked for a referendum on the bonds for the municipal center. She said that on analyzing why that campaign failed to collect enough signatures, she could not come up with anything that she would have done differently (she was not an organizer), and had concluded that the 45-day/10% requirement was a barrier to voting.
At various points during the morning, Lesko emphasized that not every bond would be included in an automatic referendum. For example, revenue bonds, emergency bonds, and special assessment bonds would not require a referendum under the charter amendment.
Ann Arbor would be the first city in Michigan to include a provision making referendums on general obligation bonds automatic. Lesko put this in the context of other political and social firsts in which Ann Arbor has led (e.g., first openly gay city councilmember, zone of reproductive freedom). She also listed out a number of cities which issue general obligation bonds only with voter approval, which include Colorado Springs, Portland, and Madison, among others.