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Editorial: Taking the mystique out of petition process

By Blake Fontenay, writing on behalf of the Daily Camera Editorial Board. Originally published in the Daily Camera on December 19, 2020.

"Next month, Boulder city officials plan to launch a new website intended to guide citizens through the process of petitioning to get proposed city charter or ordinance changes on the local ballot. According to the city, this website will include frequently asked questions and videos to help people navigate through what can be a confusing process.

There’s reason for cautious optimism here. It remains to be seen how 'user friendly' this website will be. If it’s easy to use, then the website could be a great service for citizen activists who want to take a greater role in determining their city’s future. However, if it’s not easy to use, the site could make a bad situation worse.

Several citizens groups tried to launch petition drives this year, with some cringe-worthy results. Some were given information about signature requirements and petition deadlines from the city attorney’s office that turned out to be incorrect. And that made the already difficult task of gathering signatures during a pandemic even more challenging.

As a result, there were petition drives that failed. We recommended that the City Council, in the interest of fairness, should have put the issues brought forward by those citizens groups on the ballot anyway, as a way to compensate for the role city officials played in undermining their petition drives.

The council didn’t apply that strategy consistently across the board, though. Instead, the council majority chose to put one initiative to require legal representation for renters on the ballot, while another initiative dealing with residential occupancy limits was cast aside.

At the time, city officials seemed unsympathetic to the impact their disinformation had in thwarting citizens’ efforts. It was even suggested that because the citizens had their own lawyers advising them, they should have known better.

Which is troubling for at least a couple of reasons. For one, citizens ought to be able to expect that the legal advice they get from the city attorney’s office on issues related to city government is reliable. For another, neither the City Council, nor the city attorney’s office, nor anyone else in city government should be trying to 'play defense' when petition drives are announced.

Yes, it is the part of the council’s role to make amendments to ordinances and even, on occasion, to recommend changes for the city charter. But that doesn’t make the citizen petition process any less valid or important to local democracy."

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