Bid Launched to Amend City Charter

If successful, automatic referendum would be held on certain bonds
Pat Lesko

Pat Lesko announces the petition to ask for a charter amendment that would automatically include a voter referendum on general obligation bonds.

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.


  1. By Lou Glorie
    March 30, 2009 at 5:55 pm | permalink

    Good, faithful reporting, Dave. I would like to clarify the reason for my question about the city’s spending on education for bonds. The question popped into my head when Pat mentioned the AA Public Schools mailers’ educating or promoting the bonds last spring, and the research finding that 80% of bonds pass in municipalities where a vote is needed.

    I noted last spring that the School mailers were well designed and of high quality (pricey) and of course the rationales for rejecting the bonds were not mentioned. The point is not so much how can citizens defeat bonds, but acknowledging that the bond issuers often have an advantage even when there might be organized opposition.

    It still looks like the city has a very good chance of getting approval for bonds, but it is nice to ask. It’s kind of like living in a democracy.

  2. By jay
    March 30, 2009 at 10:24 pm | permalink

    bad idea. why? because in primary elections less than 20% of the city votes. if a referendum comes up then, a very small percentage of citizens would be dictating bond issues… which is very troubling. if the group were honest they would insert a minimum voter turnout clause (say, 51%) to guarantee that the true interests of citizens weren’t trumped in the name of false fairness.

  3. By John
    March 31, 2009 at 8:50 am | permalink


    At the moment, there are City Council representatives who make the decisions who’ve been elected by fewer votes than the number of people one sees at a wedding. Leigh Greden was elected with 460 votes, Marcia Higgins 460 votes, Sabra Briere 390 votes. There are 100,000 registered voters. If they’ll accept the office based on a vote of less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the electorate, I think a vote where 20 percent of the electorate decides an issue is a marked improvement in citizen involvement.

  4. By George Hammond
    March 31, 2009 at 9:57 am | permalink

    John’s choice of numbers seems flawed.
    Citizens only vote for the City Council candidates from their ward, so the total number of voters in the city is irrelevant, only the number in each ward. If the wards divide population evenly, then the Council reps you mention were voted for by 2-3% of the voters in their ward. It’s also worth considering that each of them ran unopposed, and lots of people don’t bother to vote when there is no contest.

    I’m not sure, but a better comparison might be the County jail funding millage, Proposal A in February 2005.
    In that election 10% of the county citizens voted (about 26000), and the proposal was defeated by the votes of 16,000 (so about 6% of the electorate).

  5. By Diane
    March 31, 2009 at 11:41 am | permalink

    Voting on a bond issue is not the same as voting for an elected official. One is a yes/no question, the other is a preference on who you want to represent you. I don’t think you can fairly compare the two.

    I agree the County Jail funding millage is a much better comaprison.

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    March 31, 2009 at 12:10 pm | permalink

    So voters in Portland and Madison are smart enough to make GO bond decisions but voters in Ann Arbor aren’t?

    Got it.

  7. By Steve Bean
    March 31, 2009 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    “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.”

    Focusing on certain voters would seem to contradict the spirit of the group’s proposal. I hope they really do intend to go door-to-door without skipping houses.

    My thinking on this concept has changed somewhat over time. I had previously been concerned about the level of commitment and the amount of time necessary for citizens to adequately understand the complexities of issues that might call for issuance of a GO bond. I just visited the GO Ask Voters site (clever name, btw), and I think they make a convincing case for the value of the proposal to the community in democratic and social-fabric terms. There will be an economic cost that will need to be considered, of course. It will be up to all of us to make sure that those costs become investments in democracy and don’t simply fund competing, narrow (political) perspectives.

    One question, though: if this truly isn’t about one building, aren’t there more opportunities to improve local government that would have been identified in the process of this as a positive step? I hope GOAV will share other ideas.

  8. By Patricia Lesko
    March 31, 2009 at 5:56 pm | permalink

    Hi Steve,

    As always, great question. I’m pleased you found the web site makes a convincing case.

    As Judy McGovern points out in her blog, the voter rolls are problematic and inaccurate. County Clerk Larry K. has spoken to this issue, as well. For us, then, the challenge comes in getting “clean” signatures, that is to say, signatures from registered voters who live in Ann Arbor. That’s the primary goal, so targeting voters is necessary and will get us a higher percentage of valid signers. The second goal is to educate voters as a group through the media, our web site and distributing literature more broadly. It’s why we had a press conference. We got great coverage from media that cover at least 80,000 local readers/listeners combined.

    Even if we gathered 6,000 signatures by the end of April, out of sheer principle I would argue for a November ballot. I really believe this needs to be a city-wide discussion and decision.

    As for the economic cost of putting GO Bonds on the ballot, there is none. The State mandates four voting dates per year (one per quarter). The City staff plans and uses those dates when presenting all kinds of requests to voters (such as the 2005 Charter amendment for road maintenance). It’s important to remember that Revenue bonds, Emergency bonds, and Special Assessment bonds are not included in this amendment proposal.

    This Charter amendment proposal is about removing a barrier to voting. It echoes and is built upon President Obama’s call for Americans to work with government as opposed to working against it. The 45-day petition drive mechanism forces voters to work against government and disenfranchises voters. That was the conclusion I came to after I saw people with much more political savvy, and many more political connections than I, great funding, and a boatload of volunteers, fail to be able to use the 45-day mechanism to get a single GO bond issuance to a public vote.

    To paraphrase Alan Goldsmith’s comment: If voters in Berkeley, Madison and Columbus are smart enough to issue GO bonds by voter assent, surely there’s no question but that voters in Ann Arbor are!

  9. March 31, 2009 at 7:04 pm | permalink

    Pat, thanks for the clarification on the group’s strategy. Now I’m going to gently challenge some of your comments. :-)

    The cost of staff time and other resources to proactively educate voters is some marginal amount greater than that required to provide information to interested citizens at a public meeting prior to council action on an issue. The cost difference isn’t large, but it’s not “none”.

    I don’t see the logic behind your conclusion that this effort would remove a barrier to voting–a pothole in local democracy, maybe, but not a barrier to voting. (I also encourage you, as someone who has aspired to elected office, to avoid conclusions–please be open to all possibilities and the potential for change, especially in your own thinking.)

    I do agree with your assessment (there’s an alternative term to “conclusion” for you) regarding the petition requirement working against government. That’s a valuable insight.

    Finally, I hope we can all avoid the pitfall of framing this issue in terms of voter intelligence. As I’ve seen pointed out by others, half the population has a below average IQ. Going down that path would lead to the sorts of barriers to voting that claim to be trying to eliminate. As is the case with its discussion on Arbor Update, this issue can appropriately be framed in terms of voter (or citizen) awareness and interest, rather than intelligence.

    Thanks for your efforts on this. I hope that folks can separate their evaluation of this proposal from their thoughts and feelings about how it appears to have come about.

  10. By Daniel Adams
    April 1, 2009 at 12:02 pm | permalink

    “So voters in Portland and Madison are smart enough to make GO bond decisions but voters in Ann Arbor aren’t? Got it.”

    I think this argument misses the mark. Even assuming the A2 voting public is be “smart enough,” when it comes to issues like GO debt/bonds, it is not as capable or as educated as the members of the city council.

    It is simply not enough to say, “They do it in other cities, so why not here?” Nor is it enough to blindly rely on the false premise that more democracy will always create better outcomes. It doesn’t.

    One of the real strengths of representative democracy is that it tasks a select group of informed voters to the most sophisticated issues. Ripping these core issues away from the professionals and dumping them on a (largely apathetic) voting public does not seem wise.

  11. April 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    My understanding is that the public would only be asked to vote on a GO bond proposal by action of city council. In essence, the vote would be to confirm council’s judgment. No ripping or dumping involved.

  12. April 1, 2009 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    Another one for you, Pat:

    “That’s the primary goal, so targeting voters is necessary and will get us a higher percentage of valid signers.”

    Is it really “necessary”? Seems more like a choice. If that seems like nit picking, consider that someone who sees things from Daniel’s perspective, for example, might argue that it’s “necessary” for council to make GO bond decisions.

  13. By Diane
    April 1, 2009 at 3:16 pm | permalink

    Steve post 11-

    the vote is not to confirm council’s judgment but rather to overrule council’s judgment. The problem is that the people who are overruling are less informed.

  14. By Patricia Lesko
    April 2, 2009 at 2:34 pm | permalink

    Hi Steve,

    Getting valid signatures from a requisite number of registered voters is the only way to get such a proposal on the ballot. The problem of the inaccurate voter rolls in our city (inflated by perhaps 20 percent) is a significant one when undertaking citizen-driven petitions or citizen-driven ordinances. It is interfering with the legal avenues open to citizens to participate in government. I suppose someone could sue the City Clerk for not keeping accurate records, but it’s really a national debate on the maintenance of voter rolls. So, yes, it is necessary to find the “real” voters.

  15. By Patricia Lesko
    April 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm | permalink


    Voters would confirm Council’s request or reject it. City staff does a superb job of educating voters when city-initiated funding proposals are brought before us. The School District does, as well. This proposed amendment would entail the continuance of the education of the electorate—in this instance concerning the GO bond proposals. This is nothing new or radical; it’s done year after year for funding proposals for roads, parks and our schools. This proposed amendment would simply add GO Bonds to the list.

    The point of the proposed amendment is for voters and government to work in concert with respect to GO Bond issuances as we do in these many other instances.

  16. April 2, 2009 at 3:38 pm | permalink

    Regarding voter role accuracy, Lesko tells half the story. She writes, “The problem of the inaccurate voter rolls in our city … is a significant one when undertaking citizen-driven petitions or citizen-driven ordinances. It is interfering with the legal avenues open to citizens to participate in government. I suppose someone could sue the City Clerk for not keeping accurate record.”

    Yes, the high number of out-of-date records does make things like this more difficult, but what are the alternatives? What are their costs? When you start purging the voter roles, you run into problems with valid voters not being on the list.

    I would rather err on the side of keeping people on the list rather than disenfranchising people with an aggressive cleanup effort.

  17. By Patricia Lesko
    April 2, 2009 at 7:42 pm | permalink


    For the record, I agree completely with you. Purging voter rolls sets a scary precedent. As I wrote, it’s a national problem, but one that seems increasingly surmountable as more and more of our personal data ends up in government databases (Social Security administration records, for instance). I imagine there have been some spirited discussions between the City and County Clerk’s offices on the subject; it’s a thorny problem.

  18. By jay
    April 4, 2009 at 12:08 am | permalink

    if we’re going to invoke cities like portland and madison and berkley as benchmarks for intelligence then there’s a whole list of changes i’d like to see here in a2… how about a parking cap (portland for 20 years), expanded bus service with a focus on riders of choice (portland, madison), an unelected regional authority that sets urban boundries and promotes core density (portland) ‘granny flats’ (berkley) tax breaks for downtown developers (madison). i suspect some of these ideas would rankle those who hold these cities up as standard bearers for urban policy.

  19. By ChuckL
    April 13, 2009 at 10:07 pm | permalink


    The point of pointing out the inflated voter role number is to make the case that when petition requirements base the number of signatures necessary to put an issue to a vote on a percentage of the registered voters, there is an inherent unfairness to the organizers of the petition drive. This is due to the fact that the number of registered voters is inflated by a factor of 1.5-2.0 (at least in the 1st Ward where I analyzed the voter registration file) the number of people who can actually vote. People who register and then leave the state without notifying the SOS office will remain on the voter roles in theory forever. That scenario happens a lot in Ann Arbor due to the transient student population. There is usually a large up-tick in voter registrations in Presidential election years. The fix to this is simple (but hard to implement), don’t base signature requirements on a percentage of registered voters. Another thing to consider: the inflated registration count understates the true voter turn-out percentage with a long range trend that will magnify the effect to the point that there will eventually be more registered voters than population in the city. I believe we are already at the point where the number of registered voters is about equal to the number of 18+ people in the population. It would be nice if the County Clerk could come up with and publish a deflation factor by ward that would give us a better idea of what the true turn-out is. I estimate it is anywhere from 0.5-0.7.