Iowa City residents to vote on petition requirements during November's election

Petition filed requires Iowa City to place issue on election ballot, costs city $31,000

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IOWA CITY — Iowa City residents will see an amendment to the city’s charter on their Nov. 8 election ballots.

The Iowa City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday night to request a proposed amendment to the city charter be placed on the ballot. The move was in response to a petition filed to decrease the number of signatures required to force an initiative or referendum vote.

“What better way to establish community support than through the ballot box this fall?” council member Rockne Cole said.

If residents approve the measure, the number of signatures required for initiative or referendum petitions would drop significantly — from 25 percent of the population that voted in the last regular city election or no fewer than 3,600 people, to 10 percent or no fewer than 10 people.

The city’s estimated cost to place the measure on the ballot in its 24 precincts is just over $31,000, according to a memo sent by City Clerk Marian Karr. The Johnson County’s Auditor’s Office initially estimated the cost to be between $60,000 to $70,000 or 50 percent of the costs before the office adjusted its policy to include a cost cap.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton said he explored numerous ways to avoid the cost of placing the measure on the ballot. However, he did not find a legally viable option.

“If I thought we could do it, it would’ve been on our agenda for tonight.” Throgmorton said. “It just improved impossible.”

The City Council could amend the charter by passing an ordinance, which it could draft to essentially match the petition. However, because the petition was officially filed, City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes said the council now must place the public measure on the ballot — even if the council passes an ordinance.

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for you to pass an ordinance at this stage,” Dilkes said.

The measure comes after an April 2015 decision by the City Council to ensure petitioners get more signatures before they can force an initiative or referendum vote. Then, the City Council voted to increase the minimum number of signatures from 2,500 to 3,600.

However, the council allowed all eligible voters — even those not registered — to sign a petition.

Even though the threshold is 3,600 signatures, requirements for a petition to amend the city charter is much lower. Such a petition requires “10 percent of the people who voted at the last preceding city election, but not less than 10 people,” according to a memo from Karr and Dilkes.

This specific petition, which was filed by three Iowa City residents, was required to have 686 dated signatures with Iowa City addresses. It met this goal with 751 signatures.

Caroline Dieterle, who helped collect signatures for the petition, told the council she wanted to ensure the requirement was manageable.

“People would like to have it made easier to petition,” Dieterle said. “They understood right away the usefulness of having the path open in case anyone did want to do anything.”

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