How many times over the years have city lawyers and politicians said there is no way to put a question on the ballot unless residents go out and gather 3,300 or so signatures from registered voters to force the issue? Answer: On hundreds of occasions.
But now we find out that it's not true.
Last night, Dale Clift, the city attorney, summarized this opinion at the City Council meeting, in response to a query raised a month ago by resident Tim Gamache (which councilors subsequently said they'd like to get answered).
What Clift says is astounding to anyone who's sat through many municipal meetings.
In his opinion, he says that "the Mayor, or City Council, each by himself" can put a "proper question" on the ballot.
A proper question can repeal a council action or hogtie future council actions. Trying to get the right wording is a trick for the public, of course, but it's no trick at all for city leaders, who can simply ask the attorneys to write something up that would pass muster.
Clift said there is a key difference between a referendum forced by petition and one that politicans put on the ballot themselves.
If there's a petition drive that forces something onto the ballot, its results are permanent. They can't be reversed except by another public vote.
If the mayor or the council put something on the ballot, they would naturally abide by the results, but there's nothing to stop them from ignoring the referendum results a year or two or ten later. That would matter a lot on some issues, but not at all on others.
What's fascinating is that most of the people serving on the council today -- and perhaps all of them -- said they would put major projects on the ballot if they could.
Well, it turns out they can.
So now we have an interesting question: will they?
It's too late to put anything else on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. But there's nothing to stop the mayor or council (or both) from holding a special referendum on the $130 million school plan, as long as it's worded properly.
Yes, it would cost some money -- $30,000 or so for a special vote, if memory serves me correctly -- but it has happened before.
The 1988 referendum that blocked development of the Hoppers-Birge Pond Nature Preserve was held on Nov. 18th - two weeks after the presidential election that saw George H.W. Bush capture the White House.
If nothing else, Clift's opinion opens the door to a possible new era in Bristol politics, where the public can perhaps pressure officials to put controversial items on the ballot.
Moreoever, there are times when politicians might now find it convenient to throw issues to the people to decide, allowing them to sidestep tough choices themselves.
Either way, I'd be surprised if we don't see more public policy issues on the ballot in Bristol in the months and years ahead.
Whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure.
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org