Petitions were rightly rejected

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By George Chandler

I would like to respond to a long list of complaints (Monitor, Feb. 17) by one of the sponsors of two petitions that were rejected by the county council.  

The petitions were appropriately rejected because they did not conform with a well-known principle of law governing the way questions are to be presented to voters on a ballot – i.e., no “logrolling:” Each question presented must be a single issue.

The petitioners have the responsibility to get the questions right before they start collecting signatures.  The county has no responsibility to review the questions except as to “sufficiency,” the sufficient number of signatures.

The petition wording and circulation is strictly citizen-driven and it is intended to be that way.  The council does not have the authority to guess what the petitioners meant to ask and rewrite the questions after the fact, nor can I believe any petitioners worth their salt would want the council to rewrite their questions, and you can be sure that not all those who signed the petitions would agree with the rewrite.  

The council had no legal obligation to do anything with the petitions once they were rejected, nevertheless, and wisely in my opinion, they asked the Charter Review Committee to look at the petitions and take input because the number of signatures, roughly 2,000, may indicate a problem that could be addressed by a charter change.  

The “separability” section in the charter (a misnomer, it should say severability) has no bearing on the logrolling issue.  This section severs any provision found invalid so that the balance of the document remains in force.  The “log-rolling” problem is a different subject.  Raising “separability” in this context is simply a red herring.

The checks and balances on the municipal and county levels do not, and can not, exactly mirror those at the state and national levels.  Local governments are instruments of the state; the limited legislative authority of a local council is balanced by judicial review in district court and by the executive authority of the state.  

Local governments can choose a local executive in the form of a mayor, but in the Los Alamos charter the local executive was limited to an appointed administrator because of the founders’ mistrust of executive power.  

I hold that the most important checks on the power of the Council are the petition-initiative and petition-referendum processes in our charter.   If you look around the United States at the very active direct democracy movement (e.g., California, Colorado, Oregon), you will find that Los Alamos has the holy grail of American direct democracy: Voter initiative for both charter amendments and ordinances and referendum by petition of ordinances (with reasonable exceptions).  

These can be and have been used to great effect in Los Alamos. When I first became active in politics here in the late 1970s the county government was nearly paralyzed by a raft of referendum petitions.  That was probably too much democracy for efficient government, but the potential is still there; little has changed from those days.  

I’m not a fan of government power and I support direct democracy and activism in general.  But the obligations run both ways:  the government should do its job right, and so should those who would intervene in government.  In this case the activists fell down on the job.  I admire their enthusiasm, and I hope they can learn from this experience and return to fight another day.

George Chandler

Los Alamos