As part of the ballot for the November election, Los Alamos voters are being presented with proposed changes to the Initiative, Referendum and Recall provisions of the Charter, and the process for future Charter amendments.
We fully agree with the notion that changes to the Charter should only be made after thoughtful and deliberate consideration.
The Charter Review Committee provided that analysis after months of open and respectful dialogue.
We support the proposed changes and would like to offer our explanations for our concrete support.
Councilor David Izraelevitz
We begin by providing an explanation of the terms. 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 sometimes called “citizen directed legislation.” A recall is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended.
The fundamental question the original framers of the Charter and the Charter Review Committee had to wrestle with was to find that delicate balance between a representative democracies’ inherent responsibility to govern as the elected agent of the public and the citizen’s right to overrule the governing body or to direct legislation of its own.
The U.S. Constitution is replete with checks and balances designed to ensure overlapping powers within the branches of government. The challenge for any Home Rule Charter like ours is to ensure our processes promote representative governance by those elected by the public to perform those functions while allowing the citizens to have a tool at their disposal that would allow them to checkmate the actions of a governing body should they act in an egregious manner.
The first ballot question seeks to address the fact that the Charter structure is set up in a way that provides initiative provisions in multiple sections making it difficult for citizens to follow all of the rules.
The proposed changes will place those requirements in a single section which will make them more accessible and easy to understand.
The rationale is that citizens are entitled to processes that are clear and without ambiguity. The proposed changes identify the subjects legally excluded from the initiative process which include: budget, outstanding bonds or bonds previously approved at an election, appropriations, levy of taxes, capital projects, utility and solid waste rates, compensation of county officers and employees, zone map amendments, or as otherwise provided by law.
It also reduces the time for collection of initiative petition signatures from 180 to 90 days recognizing a reasonable time standard used in other municipalities across the state such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
The change also makes clear the procedures to be used for the initiative process including changes to the Clerk’s certification process.
The second ballot question seeks to provide for a unified and refined referendum process. As with the initiative process, the proposed changes clearly articulates those subjects legally excluded from the referendum process.
It also increases the number of required signatures on a referendum petition from 10 percent of the voters in the previous general election to 15% of the arithmetic mean of the number of voters in the two previous general elections which again is more in line with other communities.
We agree with the notion promulgated by municipalities across the nation 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 proposal represents a modest increase designed 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 very moderate.
The proposed changes also add clarity to the referendum process, including much needed enhancements to the Clerk’s certification process.
The third ballot question speaks to the issue of recall of elected officials. The proposed changes modify the County’s recall petition process so that it follows the New Mexico Constitution’s provisions for counties relating to recall petitions, and requires presentation of some rationale for the recall effort.
The fourth and last ballot question explains the procedures for Charter amendments and aligns the requirements for citizen- initiated amendments with the proposed procedures for initiative petitions and elections.
We believe these proposed enhancements to the charter succinctly and functionally support the process and requirements for citizen directed initiatives, referendum and amendment proposals while synchronizing the recall process with the New Mexico State Constitution.
Additionally, we consider the four recommendations for changes to the Charter put forth in the respective ballot questions to strike that difficult balance between allowing for elected officials to govern in a representative council-manager form of government yet providing a clear path for citizen directed action when necessary and appropriate.
We strongly support these changes and respectfully ask that you vote “yes” on all four questions.