Initiative, Referendum and Recall Ballot Questions – A Path to Good Governance

By John C. Hopkins, Charter Review Committee Chair
By Chris Chandler, I&R Subcommittee Chair

The Charter Review Committee (CRC) spent more than two years studying the Los Alamos County Charter. 

After numerous public meetings and considerable debate, the CRC’s and Los Alamos County Council’s proposals relating to initiative, referendum and recall are now being presented to the voters on the fall ballot.  

The CRC approached its study of initiative and referendum (I&R) beginning with the tenet that representative democracy is the basis of our American system of government.

It is within this context that we considered the role of initiative and referendum. 

When and under what conditions is direct citizen legislation appropriate?

We concluded that the voters are entitled to well-defined processes that provide citizens with a means to “check” on extraordinarily poor or misguided Council action, not as a routine method for objecting to Council decisions. 

The current Charter provisions (Article VII and sections of Article IX) are confusing, ambiguous, and in some instances internally inconsistent. 

The proposed amendments eliminate the ambiguities. The amendments also enumerate several items that are not eligible for petition.  

Most of these items are “exempt” from citizen petition under New Mexico law. We felt that it was better to define what is not legally permissible so that citizen will know up front what is and what isn’t legally permissible. 

This change will help avoid the frustration experienced by petitioners who learn at the end of the signature collection period that their petitions are not legal.

The proposed amendments shorten the time frame allowed for circulating initiative petitions from 180 days to 90 days.

For referendum petitions, we are proposing a moderate increase in the percentage of signatures to cause an election on a petition question – from 10 percent to 15 percent of the averaged number of voters of the last two general elections.

These I&R changes bring Los Alamos into line with other New Mexico communities. For example, Santa Fe allows 90 days to circulate an initiative or referendum petition and requires 33 1/3 percent of votes cast in the last mayoral election with at least 10 percent be from each council district.  

Albuquerque allows 60 days to circulate a petition and requires 20 percent of the votes cast averaged over the last four municipal elections.

The amendment relating to recall (Ballot Question #3) brings the Charter’s current provision into compliance with the New Mexico State Constitution. 

The proposed amendments support a sensible and reasonable balance between our representative form of government and the citizen’s ability to exercise initiative and referendum procedures. 

The amendments offer clear specifications for the initiative and referendum processes that are similar to other home rule communities in the State. 

In sum, the CRC and Council proposals provide a path to good governance for the whole community. 

We urge you to vote “FOR” Charter ballot questions 1, 2, 3, 4 in the fall election. For more information about the ballot questions, please refer to FAQ’s (and answers) at

Frequently Asked Questions – Charter Ballot Questions on Initiative, Referendum & Recall
Prepared by Citizens for Good Government – John Hopkins, Chair August 2012

Why are changes to the Charter being proposed? Doesn’t the current Charter work just fine?

  • The Charter review is the first comprehensive review presented to voters since the Charter’s adoption in 1968. Over time some of the language has proven to be out of date and confusing. Some provisions no longer conform to state law. Other changes describe more clearly processes as they are actually implemented. Certain proposed changes are designed to improve county governance and are modeled on standard procedures in other New Mexico communities.

What is the Charter Review Committee?

  • The County Council created the Charter Review Committee (CRC) in late 2009 to conduct a comprehensive review of the Los Alamos County Charter.
  • The Chair of the CRC is John Hopkins and the Vice Chair is Larry Warner. Current members are Chris Chandler, Richard “Skip” Dunn, Harry Ettinger, Ralph Phelps, Morrie Pongratz, and Kyle Wheeler. Former CRC members include Deborah Gill, Jim Hall, David Izraelevitz, and Robert Pelak. Several of the CRC members are former county councilors. All current and former CRC members have participated in community affairs for many years and reflect the diversity of views within the community.
  • The CRC held dozens of public hearings and studied the issues at length before formulating its recommendations to the County Council. In addition, the County Council held multiple public meetings before adopting and presenting to the voters these CRC recommendations on Initiative and Referendum. Recommended changes to other parts of the Charter will be considered later this fall.
  • Documents produced by the CRC and a link to the CRC’s Final Report dated Dec. 16, 2011 can be found at

What is the process for amending the Charter?

  • The Charter provides three ways for amending the Charter: 1) By citizen initiative; 2) Through a Charter Commission or 3) By the Council. Each of these methods for amending the Charter requires voter approval..
  • After considering the CRC recommendations the Council adopted ordinances that incorporated the large majority of the CRC’s recommendations relating to initiative, referendum, recall, and the process for amending the charter. Those changes will be presented to the County’s voters in four ballot questions this November.

What Charter amendments are on the ballot for the fall election?

  • Los Alamos voters are being presented with proposed changes to the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall provisions of the Charter. In addition, the CRC recommend s amending the process for future Charter amendments. Other proposed amendments relating to structure of county government and utilities are likely to be presented to the voters in 2013.

Could you explain the difference between Initiative and Referendum?

  • A citizen initiative is a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of voters can require a public vote on a citizen-proposed ordinance or charter amendment.
  • A referendum is a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of voters can require a public vote to repeal an ordinance enacted by the council.
  • Both initiative and referendum processes are sometime called “citizen directed legislation.”

Why are the proposed amendments so complicated?

  • If you compare the amendments to the language in the current Charter [link — Section VII and IX] you will see that the proposed amendments actually simplify and clarify what is presently in place. Because the current Charter separates some related provisions and combines other unrelated provisions, disentangling these is cumbersome and adds to confusion in implementation. The proposed petition processes are consolidated in each section (i.e. Initiative, Referendum, Recall, and Charter Amendment) making it easier for the average citizen to follow. This consolidation will also make the provisions easier to amend in the future, should the need arise.

Why do the amendments increase the number of actions that cannot be “petitioned”?

  • The present Charter lists a number of subject areas that are not eligible for the petition process – for example, utility rate increases and budget items. The items that have been added state explicitly what is not eligible for citizen-directed legislation under established New Mexico case law. The number of actions which are prohibited is not increased; however, clearly describing what is legally impermissible adds clarity to the process, so prospective petitioners will know in advance what is illegal. This will help avoid the frustration experienced by petitioners who learn at the end of the signature collection period that their petitions are not legally permissible.

Could you explain the New Mexico case law in layman’s terms?

  • Based on New Mexico Supreme Court rulings, New Mexico case law precludes voter consideration of questions that are deemed administrative or executive in nature (operations of government) as opposed to questions that are legislative (policy-making.) For example, an initiative petition seeking to ban smoking in public places is legislative in nature and would be considered legal. However, a petition that required the County to dedicate one full-time employee to enforce the ordinance is administrative in nature and is considered illegal.

Why do the ballot questions lump process and substantive changes together? Isn’t that improper?

  • No, it is not improper or illegal to present amendments together that relate to the same subject area. The ballot questions present each distinct topical area in separate questions. Question 1 includes all proposed changes relating to the initiative process. Question 2 addresses the referendum process. Question 3 includes changes related to recall. Question 4 includes amendments on how the Charter may be amended, including a prohibition on grouping unrelated subjects as one ballot question (referred to as log-rolling). The ballot questions do not constitute “log-rolling”, because they logically group changes that relate to the same subject area. This is a proper, common-sense way to present the ballot questions and was endorsed by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Why is the time period to collect initiative petition signatures being shortened?

  • The proposed change from 180 days to 90 days is intended to allow enough time to collect signatures on issues for which there is compelling public interest or concern, without unduly delaying or impacting decisions or actions that need to be made on behalf of the community. The 90-day proposed time-frame is very much in line with other New Mexico communities. For example, Santa Fe allows 90 days to circulate initiative petitions. Albuquerque allows 60 days.

Why is the percentage of required signatures for the referendum process being increased from 10 percent to 15 percent?

  • As many others have in other cities and states, the Committee concluded that the petition process should be a step of “last resort” that acts as a check on extraordinarily poor Council actions, not as a routine method for objecting to Council decisions. Given these considerations, 10 percent seemed to be too low a threshold The CRC recommended a modest increase to bring more balance between the petition process and the County’s representative form of government. Compared to Santa Fe (33 1/3 percent of votes cast in the last mayoral election, with the requirement at least 10 percent be from each council district) and Albuquerque (20 percent of the votes cast averaged over the last four municipal elections), the proposed new threshold of 15 percent is a very moderate increase.

It seems as though these changes are being rushed through? What’s the hurry?

On the contrary, the Charter review process was measured, inclusive and included much public discussion. The CRC held dozens of public hearings over a two-year period. It studied the charters of other communities; sought legal advice on existing and proposed provisions; consulted with officials of the Municipal League; read public policy articles; and conducted lively debates among its own members and the public in attendance. Furthermore, the County Council has also held numerous discussions and public hearings. Council allowed ample time and opportunity for citizens to consider and provide input to Council on these proposed changes.


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