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TELL US: Should the Town Council Take Up Citizens Petitions During Their Meetings?

A group recently petitioned to have an item on the agenda asking the Town Council to support reversing the Citizens United ruling.

This week, a group of residents hoping to have the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision reversed petitioned to have the Town Council support the idea, and got the item on the agenda by collecting 150 signatures from Watertown voters.

Not everyone liked the idea of having an issue like that placed on the agenda of the town’s highest board.

Town Council President Mark Sideris noted that the group of residents followed the Town Charter to get the petition on the agenda. They collected 188 signatures, more than the minimum required, to have it on the agenda.

“In my time sitting on the council, which has been a number of years, no group has ever petitioned to put something on the agenda,” Sideris said. “I applaud the people for doing their due diligence to read the charter and follow the process.”

Bob MacDonald, of Edenfield Avenue, said he fears citizens’ petitions could take over the council’s agenda.

“If every time a national issue comes up a resolution comes to the council it could take up all the council’s time discussing the petitions,” MacDonald said.

The Citizens United ruling does not just affect national politics, argued Bevin Croft, one of those who organized the petition. She noted that the ruling allows unlimited political contributions by corporations and unions in local elections, along with state and federal races.

In the end, the council did not discuss the petition, but voted to send a letter outlining the town’s support of the non-binding ballot measure calling for the reversal of the Citizens United ruling.

“The charter says we have to put it on the agenda, but we don’t have to take any action,” Sideris said.

What do you think? Do you think it is appropriate to have citizens petition to have items placed on the Town Council’s agenda? Tell us in the comment section below.

Maria Rose December 15, 2012 at 01:43 PM
If the topic is relevant to our community, then yes, I think it is appropriate for citizens to be able to petition the Council to put it on the agenda.
Karl Huntington Neugebauer December 16, 2012 at 09:26 PM
I agree with Maria, If it's relevant to Watertown... only.
John DiMascio December 17, 2012 at 11:40 AM
This Charter (initiative petition) provision has never been used as far as people can remember. And that's probably because the Council has done a very good job at responding to the need to debate matters that are relevant to Watertown. Normally if citizens want something heard by the Council, they can go to any Councilor. One can councilor can request that it be put on the agenda and if the matter is relevant to Watertown, the Council President will acquiesce. If the Council rejects the request, that Councilor can seek out the support of 2 colleagues. If 3 Councilors sponsor the item, then the Council President must put it on the agenda. So the bar is pretty low. If something is reasonably relevant to Town Business, the Council will gladly take it up. Surely 3 out of 9 Councilors will see it that way. And that speaks volumes about how irrelevant an unrelated the Citizens United resolution was. Kenneth Woodland was not able to get it on the Council agenda using the existing Council rules. He couldn’t find 2 colleagues that believed it was germane
John DiMascio December 17, 2012 at 12:24 PM
The problem is that the Charter allows for 150 citizens to petition to the Council about any subject whatsoever. And under the Charter once the signatures are authenticated, certified, of whatever term they use, the Council MUST hold a public hearing on whatever these folks have requested. The Council doesn't have to take a particular action. But the item must be on the agenda and a public hearing must take place. And so now that this provision has been used, we have to hope that the floodgates aren’t open. All kinds of groups can bring forth resolutions. And while the Council may ultimately reject the resolution, they must hold a public hearing. So activists (from all sides of the political spectrum) can still abuse the public hearing to raise awareness for their pet issue. The Council can be forced to deliberate measures regarding abortion, immigration, ethanol subsidies, and or the HHS contraception mandate. You name it; they can be forced to put it on the agenda. The Council can ultimately reject the measure. But a public hearing must take place. Speaker after speaker can come to podium, speak for 2 minutes and get publicity for their cause. They will get free local media coverage and they will be broadcast of local cable, potentially reaching hundreds, if not thousands of people with their particular message. And it will all be on the taxpayers’ dime and time.
John DiMascio December 17, 2012 at 12:25 PM
So, while I support the initiative petition provision in the Charter, I believe that it needs to be amended, so that only matters directly related to the administration of Watertown’s business can be brought before the Council in this manner. One way of measuring an issue against this criterion is whether or not the Council has the legal authority effect a change in policy. In other words if the Council is just being asked to express and opinion, then they don’t have the authority to change the law. So it’s not related to their authority as Councilors. If instead the Council can pass an ordinance or take action that actually changes things, then it’s something that belongs before them. Again, that’s just one test. There are other guidelines that can be established and I believe should be established for the sake of good government. People should be able to initiate the discussion in Council chambers. But there must be reasonable limits.

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