Some Iowa City residents expressed concern that passing Public Measure C, the proposal to change the City Charter by reducing the number of signatures required for initiative and referendum petitions to comply with Iowa Code §362.4, could “turn Iowa City into California” by bringing too many ballot issues to voters.
Even ignoring the obvious state vs. city distinction, California’s process for getting citizen petitions on the ballot is much different from Iowa City’s. In California, simply collecting the signatures in the allotted amount of time will ensure placement on the ballot. In Iowa City, a valid initiative or referendum petition will first be considered by the City Council, and will only be placed on the ballot if not adopted by the Council. One recent example is the traffic surveillance ban in 2013, a citizen initiative that was adopted by the City Council and thus did not go on the ballot, in part due to the overwhelming public support it received during its signature gathering campaign.
Furthermore, there are no subject restrictions for initiatives in California. In contrast, our City Charter lists several areas to which the right of initiative and referendum does not extend, including zoning ordinances, the city budget, taxes, bonds, contracts, public improvements, and any measure required to be enacted by state or federal law. Based on this list, many of the issues placed on the ballot in the state of California would not qualify for the ballot in Iowa City.
Last but not least, the signature requirements proposed by Public Measure C are not new to Iowa City. The petition process for amending the City Charter itself (as opposed to amending the City Code) already follows Section 362.4 of the Iowa Code (10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last city election), and we do not have a problem with excessive charter amendments. In fact, many of the most-cited areas for possible change in our city government such as council election districts, powers of the mayor, powers of the city manager, etc., are all governed by the Charter and not the City Code, and can be amended using the same petition process that put Public Measure C on the ballot. The Charter amendment process has been the same for more than 40 years, and we have yet to see the Californication of our City Charter.
Looking at voter turnout in Iowa City elections during past decades, it is clear that Iowa City voters have repeatedly shown that issues on the ballot do not discourage turnout, but actually increase it. The City Charter’s preamble says: “We, the people of Iowa City, Iowa, pursuant to the constitution and statutes of the state of Iowa and the principle of self-determination, proclaim that the government of Iowa City belongs to all its residents and all share the responsibility for it.” Please vote “yes” on Public Measure C to make the provisions of the Charter conform more closely to the spirit of the preamble.
• Martha Hampel is a longtime Iowa City resident and local activist. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org