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Local Governments Throw a Tantrum in Response to Citizen Initiatives

by Scott Roberts
Freedom Foundation

Posted 9/18/2014

Residents of Sequim, Wash., are taking the city to court this Thursday to settle who maintains power and control of our government. On one side stands the volunteer activists trying to change their government by citizen initiatives. On the other side is the government, which would rather have its constituents take a knee than exert their rights.

As a freedom evangelist, I travel the state preaching the gospel of liberty and extolling the need for everyday people to engage and shape their local government. Perhaps the most pure expression of citizen involvement is petitioning government by initiative.

It so happens that groups around the state have taken two ideas written by the Freedom Foundation and introduced them as local initiatives.

One idea is to make collective bargaining open to the public view. This makes sense because employee costs make up the largest portion of a government’s operating budget, and these significant contracts should not be negotiated in secret.

The other idea is to give city employees a choice as to whether or not they want to join a union. Currently, city employees are forced to join the union as a condition of their employment. This also makes sense because most people agree that they have the right to associate (or not associate) with groups of their own choosing.

Qualifying initiatives for the ballot isn’t easy. Take Sequim, for instance. Volunteers spent most of the summer doorbelling to gather more than 1,600 signatures. About 650 valid signatures were needed to qualify each of the initiatives. It’s not an easy task, nor should it be. That time and effort, along with the support of 15 percent of the registered voters is a high bar. It’s difficult, yet achievable.

It’s necessary to maintain the signature-gathering bar just high enough so not everyone can do it, and also to ensure many citizens in the local district support the petitioner’s ideas.

Once an initiative petitioner has the requisite number of valid signatures, the law becomes very clear. The city must take one of two actions. It must either adopt the ordinances directly or send the ideas to the ballot.

That’s it.

But that’s assuming the city acts like adults and follows the law.

Unfortunately, government today wields enormous power and has an uncontrollable ego. Governments seem to have forgotten they have limited power derived by the consent of the governed. They now believe they have unlimited powers granted by themselves to themselves.

And when private citizens exert their power by filing initiatives, government’s ego won’t permit it to respond like an adult. Instead, government turns red-faced and throws a tantrum.

And Sequim threw a tantrum. The city didn’t adopt either of the options proscribed by law. In fact, the city of Sequim did nothing. The city council members just sat in a corner and pouted.

The initiative backers have had to drag the city into court and ask a judge to order them to do their job.

Sadly, there is a pile of case law that enables the bad behavior displayed by Sequim. It’s so bad, that the statute that governs local citizen initiatives should start with a warning that says: “Please don’t attempt a local citizen initiative unless you are super rich and can afford to bring a lawsuit against the city.”

In these modern times, citizens should expect to litigate if they want their ideas to reach the ballot.

Three cities so far—Sequim, Shelton and Chelan—have joined together and combined resources for legal research. Not only do residents of these communities have to fight city hall, they have to fight the combined power of three city halls.

On Thursday, we’ll will find out if the judge believes the city of Sequim’s citizen initiative powers are simply an ordinance designed to make people feel like they can participate in government or if the people still remain in control of government.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]

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