Citizen Initiatives on the Ballot

Although overall 54% report that they have a provision for initative, it is more prevalent in cities 10,000 and over in population, in New England, and on the West Coast.

Jan 24, 2013 | ARTICLE

Described as “creatures of the state,” local governments in a majority of states (39) function under Dillon’s Rule, which provides narrow powers to local governments. Local authority is often defined in a city charter, and according to ICMA’s Municipal Form of Government, 2011 Survey a municipality’s form of government or structure is established in a charter authorized by the state in 56% of municipalities. The next most often reported legal basis is state law reported by 25%. Because states give authority to municipalities, it is interesting to look at some of the opportunities provided in the charter or state law relative to citizen initiatives.

Initiative allows citizens to place charter, ordinance, or home rule changes on the ballot by collecting a required number of signatures on a petition. Although overall 54% report that they have a provision for initative, it is more prevalent in cities 10,000 and over in population, in New England, and on the West Coast. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in council-manager cities report provision for initiative, and 45% of mayor-council respondents report an initiative provision. 

  • Fifty percent report a provision for indirect initiative, which requires that before any charter, ordinance, or home rule change proposed by citizens through a petition process is placed on the ballot for vote, the council must consider it. Vote results are binding on the local government.
  • Forty-nine percent report a provision for direct initiative, which requires that any charter, ordinance, or home rule change proposed by the citizens through a petition process must be placed directly on the ballot for a vote. Vote results are binding on the local government.
  • Sixteen percent report a provision for non-binding initiative, which allows citizens to place on the ballot a question for voter approval or rejection. The voter response is non-binding on the local government. 

The survey also covers roles and responsibilities, changes to government structure or form, term limits, and the council. A summary of the survey can be found in the Knowledge Network.

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