INDEPENDENCE -- The Independence City Council unanimously approved at its Sept. 11 meeting an ordinance that alters the initiative and referendum process for municipal elections.
A new time frame for signature gathering on petitions and the inclusion of a longer explanatory statement on voting pamphlets are among the most substantial changes. The law takes effect next month.
Independence did not previously have its own specific election code. Instead, officials had applied general election laws outlined in the Oregon constitution to local voting matters.
The changes stem from a suggestion by city staff in July to include longer explanatory statements for local measures. City Attorney Rich Rodeman later recommended more comprehensive changes to the election code.
The code more or less mirrors state election law, but does include provisions from a model election code devised during a conference of Oregon city attorneys in 2005, city staff said during last week's council meeting.
"That's the direction it (election codes) will be going," Rodeman said.
Under the new Independence law, individuals who file local initiatives must be residents of the city, something that is not expressly outlined in Oregon law.
Petitions must contain signatures from 15 percent or more of the community's registered voters on Jan. 1 of the year the petition was filed. The old method put as the date when the initiative or referendum was first filed.
Explanatory statements on voter pamphlets will increase from 185 to 500 words, while chief petitioners will have six months to collect signatures.
Regarding the latter issue, "the only provision in state law is that 30 days from the one year anniversary of the date the petition was approved, I have to contact the circulator to see if the petition is still valid," City Recorder Karin Johnson said. "Theoretically, they could have gathered signatures for as long as they wanted to."
Using the state election process hasn't posed any problems in recent years, Johnson said. Still, several surrounding cities, including Albany, Dallas, Monmouth and Salem, all have switched to their own specific codes.
And Monmouth and Albany give petitioners only three months to collect the requisite signatures, she said.
"I'm comfortable with six months, because it keeps (the petition gathering) under a year," Councilor Marilyn Morton said. "And I definitely agree with the point that if you string that out and let it go longer, people may sign something and change their minds by the time the issue comes to play."
The changes have drawn the ire of Kevin Sicard, a citizen who is currently circulating two initiative petitions. One calls for the creation of an independent police review board, and the other, to require Independence municipal court to provide a legal record of testimony from hearings.
Sicard seeks to have the items included on the Nov. 2008 ballot.
"City Council is trying to create a more restrictive initiative process than what residents currently enjoy," he said. "They haven't consulted with residents and haven't carried out a complete study of this matter to see if the unsolicited code by Rodeman is better than the current process."
Sicard said he opposed all of the changes, adding that he believed longer explanatory statements increase the chances of city-written legal jargon confusing the voters, and that the six-month window could affect his chances of getting his initiative on the Nov. 2008 ballot.
Asked via e-mail how the changes would affect Sicard's current petitions, Rodeman said it would depend on what aspect of the initiative process is being examined.
"How it applies to yet-unsubmitted measures is unclear and requires assumptions about what portions are at issue," he wrote. "For example, one part of the law discusses the ballot title appeal and the prospective initative process.
"Those parts have already been temporarily expired as to the new measures."
The method to withdrawl a petition, the election duties of the city recorder, and the authority of the city council to adopt an advisory measure and send it to the voters are among the items applicable to the new code, Rodeman wrote.
Not long after the changes were first proposed in August, Sicard filed another initiative with the city.
This one seeks to retroactively void this recently passed ordinance and prohibit changes to the election process - unless by a initiative or referendum that must be voted on during a presidential election.