By Aleksey Gurtovoy
What if it was much easier for us to change the Constitution than to change the laws that have to follow it? A lot of people consider this to be a silly question: It’s pretty obvious that such a hypothetical arrangement would put things awfully out of balance. Yet that’s precisely the arrangement we have in Iowa City in regards to our municipal code.
A city charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It is comparable to the Constitution of the United States or a state’s constitution. The charter is the most important legal document of a city.
A city code is a set of local ordinances enacted and enforced by the city, in conformance with the charter as well as state and federal laws.
A city code is to a city charter what regular laws are to the Constitution.
A glaring discrepancy in the Iowa City Charter is that it’s much easier to change the charter (“the Constitution”) than it is to change the city code (“regular laws”).
By “changing the charter” and “changing the city code”, we refer to the corresponding citizen petition processes for amending both documents. The city council itself can amend both the charter and the city code at will with equal ease by passing ordinances or resolutions. But when it comes to grassroots initiatives, it’s much easier to amend the charter than it is to amend the city code.
The root of this incongruous discrepancy lies in the fact that charter amendments are governed by the Iowa Code, while the city code amendment process is prescribed by the city charter itself. The difference is substantial. To initiate a vote to amend the charter, citizens are required to file a petition “signed by eligible electors of the city equal in number to ten percent of the persons who voted at the last preceding regular city election, but not less than ten persons.” In contrast, a petition to amend the city code currently “must be signed by eligible electors equal in number to at least twenty-five percent (25%) of the number of persons who voted in the last regular city election, but such signatures of eligible electors shall be no fewer than three thousand six hundred.”
Ten percent vs. 25 percent or, in most cases, 3,600 signatures — which is actually about 40 percent of average voter turnout in Iowa City. You read it right, you need to collect signatures of almost half of the voting electorate in advance before the electorate gets to “officially” weigh in on an issue.
Now, make no mistake: If the Iowa City Attorney’s office could make it just as hard to change the charter, they most likely would. But, because the charter amendment process is unambiguously governed by the Iowa Code, they can’t. The initiative and referendum petitions to amend the city code are less of a cut-and-dry deal.
Back in 2015, when, during a once-in-a-decade Iowa City Charter Review, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) of Iowa issued a legal brief arguing that the then-current wording of the provisions was “in direct conflict with state law in numerous ways,” the city attorney’s response was that she does not agree with the ACLU on this matter.
In the end, due in no small part to the substantial pressure of public opinion, the Charter Review Commission did fix the outdated “qualified electors” provision, but simultaneously raised the number of required signatures on petitions to amend the city code even further, to the current 25 percent of registered voters but no less than 3,600.
The commission’s intent of not conforming with the state law governing citizen petitions (Iowa Code Chapter 362.4) was far from subtle; the majority of commission members advocating for keeping the status quo and/or raising the number of signatures explicitly cited their fear of making it “too easy” to get a petition on the ballot.
The public argued that a petition is not the same as a law, but simply a proposal before the city council or the voters, and that if the petition is misguided, frivolous or plainly not worthy of citizens’ attention, it simply will not be adopted by the council or the voters.
It was also pointed out that the cost of putting a petition on the ballot is negligible: First of all, the council can choose to adopt it, and if not, the measure simply goes before the voters as an extra ballot item at the next regular city or general election.
It was argued that giving citizens more power to bring up issues that matter to them significantly increases electoral participation.
The public cited a University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll, conducted in March 2015, in which the majority of Iowa City residents surveyed disagreed with plans to increase the signature threshold to 3,600.
Finally, the fact that it’s already relatively “easy” to change the charter (and has been so for the last 40 years), as well as the absurd discrepancy between the two processes, were argued passionately by citizens, to no avail. The commissioners proceeded with their flawed recommendation, and the outgoing city council unanimously approved it as presented.
The irony of this whole ordeal of course lies in the fact that forcing a democratic vote on whether both petition processes should conform to the Iowa Code is as simple as filing a citizen petition to amend the charter accordingly — following that same “easy” petition process that the city establishment is seemingly so afraid of. All we can guess is that, contrary to the establishment’s own arguments, they were betting that no one would do that. Well, the citizens proved them wrong. The petition has been filed, and the issue has been placed on the general election ballot as “Public Measure C.” Now it’s up to the voters to decide.
Essentially, Measure C is about strengthening our right to petition local government.
Citizen initiatives and referendums provide an important “direct democracy” counter-balance to the everyday rule of the city council. The history of this issue provides a perfect example of a situation when asking the voters directly is the only way to resolve a “standoff” between the public and the “parental guard” of our elected officials.
The current Iowa City process requires petitioners to spend anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500 hours amassing signatures, simply to bring an issue for discussion before the city council and/or the voters. That’s six to nine months of full-time work.
Measure C aims to lower this nearly-insurmountable barrier to citizen participation in local government by making the city charter conform to the Iowa Code. It also fixes the absurd, embarrassing discrepancy between the charter and the city code petition processes. Unlike the current state of affairs, it makes a lot of sense, and I hope you vote “yes.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 209.