Legislature approves proposal to make it tougher to qualify initiatives for ballot
Voters in more than 75 towns and cities statewide will have a more difficult time reversing city council actions they don't like under a proposal that has been approved in the House and Senate.
The measure by Republican Rep.
Bill Arnold, formerly the mayor of Goodyear, requires political groups and local activists in cities with a population of less than 50,000 to gather up to eight times more petition signatures than are now required to put measures up for a vote of local residents.
The proposal would affect voters' ability to challenge city council decisions such as whether or where to allow subdivisions to be built.
The House and Senate still must agree on one version of the measure before it heads to Gov.
Janet Napolitano's desk.
The Senate passed the measure with the minimum number of votes necessary on April 30 and the House narrowly passed its bill in March after voting it down once.
If the measure is enacted into law, voters in each town and city would have to approve the change to require more signatures to send a city council action to the ballot.
The law would require that referendum petitions be signed by 10 percent of the population registered to vote in the area, instead of the current measure of 10 percent of the population that voted in the last election.
Cities that typically have low voter turnout in local elections would see the biggest change as a result of this measure.
City council members who say a small number of people have too much power in stalling city ordinances are backing the measure, while grassroots organizations and community leaders who say it takes away voters' rights oppose the bill.
Napolitano has not seen the specifics but said she generally would be opposed to a measure that would make it more difficult to refer new city ordinances to the ballot.
Community groups would need to gather an average of 358 signatures more than the average 177 they must now collect to place a city council ordinance or action on the ballot in what is called a referendum.
These groups would have an additional 15 days — or 45 days in all — to collect signatures put a referendum on the ballot under the proposal now up for consideration.
Lake Havasu City, Sierra Vista, Kingman and Prescott would be among the bigger cities that would be affected.
Yuma and Flagstaff might not be affected by the new proposal, as those cities are over the population limit in the proposal that just passed the Senate.
City officials in Pinetop-Lakeside and Sierra Vista started the proposal, which the League of Arizona Cities and Towns lobbied legislators to approve.
Five lawmakers, all representing districts outside metropolitan Tucson and Phoenix, signed onto the proposal.
"I think that the initiative process is destroying representative government in Arizona and particularly in these small towns.
A small group of citizens can turn the town upside down," said Sen.
Bob Cannell, D-Yuma, who voted for the bill.
Such seemed the case, said the League, when 13 out of 14 measures on Cave Creek's March 11 ballot were referendums placed part by a man who is now running for city council.
That election cost twice as much as the usual $5,000 because of the referendums.
The Pinetop-Lakeside City Council approved zoning for a 48-unit apartment on the border of town and county land three years ago.
The development was to be built for police officers, medical technicians, teachers and other middle-income people.
People living on the county land near the proposed site didn't want an apartment complex near their property, so they found townspeople to sponsor a petition to refer the city council's decision to the ballot.
The matter went to the ballot on 37 petition signatures.
Voters rejected the apartment complex 186-136, said Lu Anne Frost, Pinetop-Lakeside deputy town clerk.
Pinetop-Lakeside Mayor Ginny Handorf said the experience made her realize that the voters really didn't want the apartment complex, which was acceptable, but that putting city council actions on the ballot was too easy.
"The problem seems to be that just a small minority group can influence something that affects the community as a whole," Handorf said.
Even though the voters rejected the apartment complex once it got onto the ballot, Handorf supports the legislation, which would require 234 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.
"What happened up in Pinetop is the perfect example of why citizens have to have the ability to do (referendums)," said Chad Campbell, program director for the Arizona Advocacy Network.
"They need this ability to counter the mayor, the city council, and have their voices heard and this provides them with that ability."
The Arizona Advocacy Network works with moderate to liberal political, social and environmental groups such as Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters, Amnesty International and the Center for Biological Diversity.
"I think the average voter out there doesn't really realize how important this is, but they should, because it really will impact how cities control their lives," Campbell said.
Making it more difficult for voters in towns and cities with populations of under 50,000 to send referendums to the ballot also presents legal questions, said Sen.
Dean Martin, R-Phoenix, because voters in different cities would be treated differently depending on whether their city had 50,001 residents or 49,999.
Another senator echoed Martin's sentiments on the floor.
"It shouldn't matter however big, however small a city or town is.
Those people should be afforded the opportunity to question what the (legislative branch) is doing," said Sen.
Pete Rios, D-Hayden.
Sierra Vista also lobbied for measure, which would require 1,500 petition signatures instead of 290 signatures to place a referendum on the ballot.
City Council ordinances to rezone land for development were held up for a year before voters approved the ordinances in an election by 60 percent, said Sierra Vista City Manager Chuck Potucek.
But the new proposal, as currently written, would not make it more difficult for voters to petition to remove the mayor and city council from office by vote.
Cyndy Cole is the Don Bolles Fellow in the University of Arizona Journalism Department.
She is spending the spring semester of her senior year covering rural and suburban issues at the state Legislature full time for the Journalism Department's Community News Service, serving 80
newspapers around the state.