October 15, 2008

City can hold referendum whenever it wants

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.

Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com


Anonymous said...

Interesting that the city attorneys can put together a question, but cannot, or will not, evaluate one that is on the ballot.
will they be able to comment on their own question, explain it, or anything else?

Anonymous said...

Gee, I wonder why it took them so many years to simply ask the Corp. Council?

When Ward ran for office he made a big deal on his campaign website about the school project.

If I recall, he noted that in matters that affect a large fundamental social change such as the switch to a K8 school system with an enrollment per school almost tripled, or massive construction projects such as a $130 Million Plus school construction project, the people should have a right to VOTE on the matter.
Well, the current administration raised our taxes 4% last year. The economy is in a meltdown due in large part to a generation of excessive government borrowing (the US is in debt $11 Trillion and growing) and the States and cities can't sell their bonds).
The chickens are coming home to roost, and the goose ain't laying golden eggs anymore.

So was all that campaign rhetoric just to get himself elected?
Now is Mr. Ward's chance to be a man of his campaign statements,
or he can be "the other" stereotype.

Anonymous said...

Art, which way is the wind blowing?

Anonymous said...


I always knew that the City Council could vote to bring something to referendum. The issue came up during the Mall planning.

However, I didn't know that the Mayor could do it on his own. I always thought it required a majority vote from the City Council.

Anonymous said...

Does Clift know what he is doing?

According to him, a question can be put on teh ballot, but can't be explained to th epeople.

Anonymous said...

budget on the ballot
budget on the ballot
budget on the ballot

Anonymous said...

So the COO question could have been put on the ballot without having to gather signatures or tie up city resources? Where was Cliff then?

Anonymous said...

Where is he now??

Does he know?

Heaven help us !!!

Ward and Clift: the blind leading the blind.

Anonymous said...

Big question- WILL THEY put questions on the ballots!?

Anonymous said...

Another reason why we need a COO to run his city!

against the school on mathew street said...

I've been tough on Gamache at time, but I want to thank him for making this "query".

Now put the question regarding new school construction on the ballot. Namely the two sites (two questions for each, respectfully).

Anonymous said...


But no one seems to be interested in answering the questions that have risen over the way the Charted is being changed.

Will the changes (not necessarily the COO) cause more problems due to the potential conflicts and vagueness?

Anonymous said...

Poster 2:50, The COO question could have been put on but those beholden to the union voted no! There's no way the union would have let the mayor and council put it on the ballot!

Anonymous said...

I watched the council meeting on TV. I saw Gamache get up and ask about the ballot question. He was ready to hammer the council until he also heard the mayor can put anything on the ballot without the council. Then he shut his mouth and sat down.

Hey Gamache...why not question your buddy Ward? Why not ask him to just put it on the ballot?

Anonymous said...

Can't anyone here play this game?