Sensing there is no way to change the city or county you live in?

Local residents who can feel disempowered were recently surprised when eight thousand Salem residents signed a petition begun by a single person.  The petition, which expressed opposition to the City of Salem installing parking meters downtown, will likely be voted on by Salem City Council later this year and possibly put on the May 2014 ballot for a general vote.

Around the United States, citizen’s petitions make changes.  Or, in cases where they don’t, they at least express the will of populaces who feel unheard.  Examples include:

* Portland is the largest US city that doesn’t have fluoridated water – in part because its residents have voted against it three times.  When, last year, Portland’s City Council announced it supported adding fluoride to the water supply, it took less than a week for opponents to began collecting the 29,000+ signatures needed to put the issue before the people.  In May 2013, Portland voters rejected fluoride for the fourth time since 1956.

* On August 18th, San Diego citizens began collecting signatures to recall their mayor, Bob Filner, who has been accused of sexually harassing sixteen women.  Despite numerous calls for his resignation, Filner has refused to step down.  More than a thousand people have volunteered to collect the 101,597 signatures needed to put the matter on the ballot.

* During the last decade the state of Colorado has become a hotspot for fracking, a method of natural gas extraction many consider intrusive and ecologically irresponsible.  But citizens in two Colorado municipalities have reacted to governments they feel unresponsive to their concerns; because of citizen’s initiatives, items will likely appear on the November ballot that will limit oil and gas extraction or fracking in their areas.

* Last year, frustrated citizens in Austin, TX, acquired 33,000 signatures to ask for what they considered more equitable representation by City Council members.   The matter was put to a vote in November, and it passed.  An Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission was formed as a result, and is currently pursuing the goal of making Austin city government more representative.
Citizens petitions have the power to alter the way lives are lived.  Salem’s recent petition to stop downtown parking meters is in the company of many.

How difficult is it to create a petition that results in a ballot measure?

Salem Weekly wants you to know that it takes persistence.  Here’s a quick guide.

A How-To Guide to Citizen’s City Initiatives

1. Find out if anyone else cares.  You may begin by sending a survey to everyone on your email list.  Their response will let you know whether to stop in your tracks, go ahead, or modify your idea to something that will actually get the support you need.

2. Once you have the above information, draft your petition.  This means legal language.  Don’t cut corners; get sound legal advice.  Your petition will be reviewed and scrutinized for constitutionality, and rejected if it doesn’t pass muster.  Importantly, be sure your petition covers only one subject; many petitions are disqualified after the public vote because they cover more than one subject.  Don’t let it happen to you!

3. Important information is available from the Secretary of State.  It’s clear and it’s free.  In addition, check with your county or city and follow their ordinances.

4. Salem’s ordinance on this is SRC Chapter 11, which you can find at the City of Salem site online.  SRC Chapter 11 supersedes the Secretary of State’s directions, (though you’ll still have to file the Secretary of State’s forms.)

5. Initiative petitions can have up to 3 chief petitioners.  There’s a lot of work involved in the process, so get the help of others, and get the best folks you know.  Check the Secretary of State’s list of forms you have to fill out, and then submit them for your chief petitioners.

6. Form a PAC so you can raise money for your cause.  You will need money.  File the paperwork to form your PAC.

7. Collect support.  In the case of the parking meter petition, the initiator signed up 55 businesses that pledged to collect signatures before the petition language was even finalized.  A website, Facebook page, and an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to fund your petition are also invaluable.   If you know folks who will be impacted by your petition, send out a fund raising letter or two, and get their resources behind you.

8. A municipal petitioner only has 110 days from the time the petition is submitted to collect 5,688 signatures and have them verified.  Anticipate needing many more signatures than the minimum (6,600 signatures is what the anti-parking meter petitioners aimed for) since some will be invalid, no matter how careful you are.

9. Calculate that you will need two weeks for the signatures to be verified.   That means you’re shooting for possibly 6,600 signatures in 96 days.  Get your head around it, plan and schedule for it

10. Once the petition language is approved, you’ll need to submit your signature sheets and cover sheet for approval.   You will also be required to use at least 20-pound paper.  Again, the Secretary of State’s website gives layout and details for both the signature sheets and cover sheet.

11. Send your teams into the field to collect signatures.  For a city matter, signatories MUST be both registered voters and city residents; letting anyone else sign is a waste of time.  Public sidewalks are the most popular traditional location for petition gatherers.   Signature gatherers are required by the Secretary of State to sign off on each sheet of names collected; if your gatherer makes a mistake in the signing-off process, the full sheet will be thrown out.

12. Turn your petitions in as soon as you’ve got your target signatures.  The City Recorder will check the sheets, then forward them to the Elections Office.  Elections Office checks each sheet to make sure they are all printed on the same paper, that they are property signed off at the bottom, and that they contain the approved signature gathering and cover letter information. They will take a “sampling” of your signature sheets to check the signers are registered to vote, their signature matches their voter registration signature, and they live in the City of Salem boundaries.  This requires two weeks.

13. If all goes well the City Recorder will forward your petition to the City Council.  The City Council has 30 days to either adopt or reject the petition.  If the City Council does not adopt the petition, the City Recorder will automatically submit the measure to the voters for the next available election.

And – you’re done!   Ultimately it may be your peers – other voters – who will decide if your idea for improving the lives of those around you is a waste of time – or if it’s exactly what is needed.