Citizen petitions and initiatives, oh my!

While writing my post about the Accessory Dwelling Unit zoning amendment, I made a note for myself that I should also spend some time digging into the issue of citizen petitions.

By my (entirely amateur) reading of the City Charter, there are three types of citizen petitions available to Greenfield residents:

  1. Individual Petitions
  2. Group Petitions
  3. Citizen Initiative Measures

Individual Petitions

Individual petitions are described in Article 7, Section 6a of the City Charter. They are the most simple and straightforward:

The Town Council and the School Committee shall receive all petitions, signed by one (1) or more voters, which are addressed to either of them and may, in their discretion, take such action in regard to each such petition as may be deemed necessary and advisable.

So I can draft up a petition that says “The City Council shall require that all residents of Greenfield visit the website InGreenfield.org at least once each day and constructively contribute to at three civic discussions each week,” sign it myself and send it along to the City Council.

These sorts of petitions are, however, the least likely to have any impact. The “in their discretion, Take such action in regard to each such petition as may be deemed necessary and advisable” part means that the City Council would be perfectly within its rights to laugh my individual petition out of the room and never think about it again.

Group Petitions

Group petitions, as laid out in Article 7, Section 6b of the City Charter carry more weight than individual petitions:

The Town Council or the School Committee shall hold a public hearing and act with respect to every petition which is addressed to it, which is signed by one hundred (100) voters, or more, and which seeks the passage of a measure. The hearing shall be held by the Town Council or the School Committee, or, in either case, by a committee or subcommittee thereof, and the action by the Town Council or the School Committee shall be taken not later than three (3) months after the petition is filed with the Clerk of the Council or the secretary of the School Committee as may be appropriate. Hearings on two (2) or more petitions filed under this section may be held on the same date and at the same time and place. The Clerk of the Council or the secretary of the School Committee shall mail notice of the hearing to the ten (10) persons whose names appear first on the petition at least forty-eight (48) hours before the hearing. Notice, by publication in a local newspaper not less than seven (7), nor more than fourteen (14) days prior to the date set for the public hearing, shall be at public expense.

That means that if I can get at least 99 people to sign my petition requiring all citizens of Greenfield to read this site every day and have constructive conversations about local politics, then the City Council has to pay attention to it.

My petition would be filed with the City Clerk’s office, run through the committee process, have a public hearing for members of the community voice what I am sure would be their enthusiastic support for my idea. The city even gets to foot the bill for notifying everyone ahead of the public hearing.

Within three month of my initial filing of the petition (probably sooner, given the huge groundswell of enthusiasm, laudatory My Turns in the paper, and massive volume of emails to Councilors calling for—nay, DEMANDING—passage of this critical measure), the City Council would then hold a final vote on my measure and we could all look forward to a more well-informed and civic-minded community.

Citizen Initiative Measures

In the highly unlikely event that a majority of the City Council did not agree that requiring everyone in town to visit this site daily and contribute to the public discourse would be an obvious benefit to the community and voted my group petition down, do I have any options left?

Why yes—I could start a Citizen Initiative.

Here’s how this sort of petition would start, according to Article 7, Section 7a of the City Charter:

Initiative procedures shall be started by the filing of a proposed initiative petition with the Town Clerk. The petition shall be addressed to the Town Council or to the School Committee, shall contain a request for the passage of a particular measure which shall be set forth in full in the petition, and shall be signed by not less than ten (10) voters of the Town. The petition shall be accompanied by an affidavit signed by five (5) voters and containing their residential address, stating they will constitute the petitioners committee and be responsible for circulating the petition and filing it in proper form and shall indicate which member shall serve as clerk of the petitioners committee.

So I find at least ten voters who agree with me, and I get them to sign my petition. Then I find five voters1 to agree to form a committee to drive this grand cause forward.

From there, my measure goes to the City’s attorney to evaluate whether it is something that can go through the initiative process, whether the city could adopt it without violating the law, and whether the Clerk’s office can issue the blank signature forms to me and my committee.

If the city’s attorney answer yes to all three of those questions, they let the Clerk’s office know, and the Clerk then gives me the signature forms. With those forms in hand, I have ninety days to gather signatures totaling 1) at least 10% of the number of Greenfield residents who voted in the most recent regular city election and 2) at least 5% of the total number of registered voters at the time of that same election.

Once I’ve got what I believe to be a sufficient number of signatures, I turn my forms back in to the Clerk, who then confirms them—i.e., makes sure I don’t have a bunch of signatures from dead people, Florida residents, and guys named I.P. Freeley—and delivers the measure to the City Council. The Council has sixty days to act upon it. They can approve it as written, approve some other measure in its place, or take no action. In the latter two cases, my petitioned measure is considered to have been rejected by the Council.

If I find myself in the unfortunate position of having had my petition rejected, I then have an additional sixty days to gather signatures again—in this case, at least 5% of the number of Greenfield residents who voted in the most recent regular city election and at least 2.5% of the total number of registered voters at the time of that same election. If I do that, get my petition back to the Clerk, and the Clerk certifies the signatures I have collected, then the City Council must call a special election—to occur between 120 and 180 days from the Clerk’s certification—at which the voters of the City decide yes or no on my proposed measure.2

Wrapping up

So, that’s a lot. What it boils down to is that individual petitions are not all that much different than any one of us writing an email to the City Council and asking them to do something. Group petitions are more formal, but are still not super challenging for a modestly organized group of citizens to put together. Citizen initiatives have the most bars to clear, and for good reasons, as they have the clearest and most well-defined path to actually going into effect.

We have seen a number of these efforts in the past few years. Last fall, there were actually two competing petitions around the new library/French King Highway zoning compromise—a group petition from Al Norman asking the City Council to put the FKH zoning change on the ballot, and a citizen initiative initiated by former Councilor Steve Ronhave to put the question of the new library directly on the ballot. Norman’s petition failed, while Ronhave’s gathered the required number of signatures and made it onto the ballot.

More recently, Norman used the group petition process to get the Council to restore the special permitting process for Accessory Dwelling Units, overturning their previous vote getting rid of that same requirement.

More broadly, it seems like there are a lot of questions and consternation around town as to whether these sorts of petitions are a good idea or a bad idea. These questions get at the heart of the balance between direct citizen control and the representative power of elected bodies like the City Council. I have my opinions on that topic, but this post is not the place for them. I imagine, however, that the question of whether the requirements for and the processes around the submission of citizen petitions and initiatives ought to be changed will be a topic of debate for the Charter Review Committee, which picks up that section of the City Charter in its next meeting.

Sadly, there is probably no way the city’s attorney would approve my petition to make this site required reading.

  1. What’s not clear to me is whether this next group of five can include anyone from the initial ten people who signed my petition. It doesn’t matter all that much, since we’re talking pretty small numbers, and here are additional hurdles to clear anyway.
  2. The exception here is that if we are less than a year from the regular biennial election, the Council can put my measure on the ballot for that election rather than calling a special election. Elections cost money, after all.