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Online petition drive asks city commissioners to put $25M recreation center project up for citywide vote
There was a fairly interesting development this weekend related to the city’s proposed regional recreation center.
It started with an article in the Journal-World on Sunday about the various positions each City Commission candidate has taken on the proposed $25 million regional recreation center.
Candidate Scott Criqui said, among other things, that he would support the commission calling for a citywide election on the recreation center vote, if residents showed they really wanted a vote — like through a petition drive.
“If a group gathered 3,000 signatures or something like that, it would tell me that there is some concern out there,” Criqui said in the article. “But I haven’t heard of anyone who has done that yet.”
Well, Criqui might as well have said the word “abracadabra,” because by Sunday morning an online petition had begun.
The petition is active at the online site Change.org. The petition was started by some fellow named Nick Danger. I didn’t find a listing for him in the local phone directories, but I’m working under the assumption that Nick Danger might be an assumed name.
As of Monday morning, the petition had 69 signatures. I’m not overly familiar with Change.org, so I haven’t figured out yet how to see the full list of signatures. But the Web site shows several of the people who have signed, and it appears to be full of real-life people with real-life names.
It will be interesting to see what the number gets to by the time city commissioners are scheduled to perhaps take formal action on the recreation center project at their Feb 19 meeting.
The petition, of course, has no binding impact on the Lawrence City Commission. Its only impact will be whether a lot of signatures causes commissioners to reassess their thoughts on the need for an election.
Commissioners already have voted 5-0 to not put the issue on the ballot. Most of the commissioners have said that a 1994 sales tax vote for recreation projects and other needs made it clear that residents were in favor of such a project. Commissioner Mike Amyx, though, made his vote with the caveat that if residents presented a significant petition asking for a citywide vote, he would support putting the issue on the ballot.
I’m not sure what number, if any number, of signatures would cause a majority of commissioners to reconsider the idea of a citywide vote. As far as a legal petition that would force the city to place the issue on a ballot, I think that is a pretty tall order in Kansas.
But there is a state-prescribed referendum process for cities, and I believe in Lawrence it requires valid signatures totaling 25 percent or more of the number of voters in the last city election. (I’m basing this off what [I read online].) But if my interpretation is correct that the signatures only have to total 25 percent of the number of voters in the last election, then a successful petition would need somewhere between 1,700 to 2,700 signatures of registered voters. (I don’t have the exact number of voters in the 2011 election in Lawrence. There were 10,839 voters throughout the county in 2011, and I’m estimating about 7,000 of them were in Lawrence.)
If by chance I’m wrong, and you have to get 25 percent of the total number of people registered to vote, the number of signatures would grow to about 20,000. (I’ve got a call into the county clerk’s office to get a better education on this, and will update this post with what I learn.)
The referendum law also requires that the question on the ballot be a specific ordinance that would be adopted into law. So, asking a simple question of whether we should build a $25 million recreation center wouldn’t pass muster. It would have to be something like, an ordinance requiring public recreation projects totaling $25 million or more to be voted on by the voters of the city of Lawrence before construction can commence. (Again, I’m on a bit of shaky ground here in my understanding of the law.)
What is clear, is that an online petition is a heck of a lot easier. We’ll see where it goes.
UPDATE: I chatted briefly today with Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, and he confirmed that there is a process for putting issues on the ballot. Shew, though, said it is most likely to be used to call for a vote on an item that already has been approved by the City Commission, rather than proposing a new ordinance that the City Commission adopt.
How that would apply, if at all, to the recreation center issue, is a little tough to figure. But Shew said most of the Kansas laws regarding using a petition to put an issue on the ballot call for signatures equaling 25 percent or more of the voter total from the last city election. In Lawrence's case, that would be around 2,000 signatures.
So bottomline, if folks really want to try to create some sort of binding petition-drive, they'll need to do a bit more research with Shew, the city attorney or both.