February 04, 2014 Print

Making political change in your local government

More than hoping for change, many politically-active people actually want to do something. There are many ways to make political change, and the most direct way is to change a law, rule or regulation in your local government.

Here is an example of how to make changes by using the power of local initiatives.

Identify a Need
How many times have we heard our friends complaining about the deficiencies of government, or griping about what they don’t like? If you’ve been engaged, you’ve probably heard a lot of complaining, but haven’t seen much action.

I’ve found the best place to start is by doing some reasearch. You have to answer the question, “Is what I’m complaining about really the source of the problem?” By doing research you will answer that question. You will find out if there is a real problem that needs to be addressed. You may also find that the source of the problem isn’t what you thought, but something else entirely.

However, research is an important and necessary first step.

The Freedom Foundation has heard many complaints that Labor Unions have been influencing our political system with campaign cash, so we did some reasearch. We looked at the campaign contributions in the 2012 election cycle, and the union lobbying expenses this past session.

The complaints were confirmed by our research. Unions do indeed pour large amounts of money into the political system and have an outsized influence on our legislators.

Undue Influence, Campaign Spending [printer-friendly, original]
Undue Influence, Lobbying [web link]

Legal Research
If your solution results in adding or changing a law, then you will need to do some legal research. But you’re not an attorney? No problem! Today, most laws and many government documents are available online. It’s not that difficult to look through them yourself. A good place to start is with the website Washington Cities Municipal Codes. You can also contact a group like the Freedom Foundation. Chances are, if we haven’t done some research on a subject, we will know a group who has.

Position Papers (how will you talk to the public about the issue)
Thoroughly understanding an issue is important, but how you explain your idea to the public may be a completely different exercise. Giving the public straight facts and figures won’t generally gain much support. You will need to figure out how to talk about your idea to the public so people will understand and positively identify with your issue. Here is how we talk about our union transparency and reform ideas. We use these arguments in hopes of clearly communicating our ideas and the need for more union transparency and collective bargaining protections.

Messaging for Collective Bargaining Transparency and Protections [link]

Model Ordinances
The next step is to work with your local government and ask them if they will work to pass your idea and adopt it as an ordinance or rule. You will use both the research and position papers during this stage. Communicating your ideas clearly at this stage is critical. You need to present both the raw data, clearly articulate the problems, and show your proposed solutions.

By presenting your ideas in this way, you will shine the best possible light on your ideas and have the greatest possibility of success that elected officials will champion your proposal. This is, however, no guarantee of success.

Asking your elected officials to make changes is the fastest, easiest way to make political change. Your time advancing proposals with elected officials is time well spent.

Here are model ordinances for creating more union transparency and reforming the collective bargaining process.

Collective Bargaining Transparency Model Ordinances [.pdf] [.doc]
Collective Bargaining Protections - Model Ordinances [.pdf] [.doc]

Initiative - Petition
If local elected officials won’t move your idea forward legislatively, then it may be possible to place them on the ballot. Some local governments in Washington have given citizens the power of initiative. This will require an organized effort to gather and certify signatures. However, it is one of the best ways to gain awareness around an issue. If you are successful in placing an issue on the ballot, each registered voter in the jurisdiction will be asked to think about your issue and make a decision on it.

Local Governments with power of initiative
There are 63 local governments that have reserved the power of a citizen initiative: 6 counties and 57 cities. Here is the complete list.

Petition Requirements
A petition must include a concise statement of the action or relief sought by the petitioners; a true copy of the ordinance; numbered lines for signatures with spaces for the name and address of the signer and the date of signing; a prescribed warning statement. Here is the state law which outlines the petition requirements.

Prop1: Collective Bargaining Transparency - sample petition [.pdf] ] [.indd]
Prop2: Collective Bargaining Protections - sample petition [.pdf] ] [.indd]

Severability Clause
It is considered best practices to include a severability clause in the complete text of an ordinance, just in case one provision is challenged and struck down by a court, then the other provisions will survive. Here is a sample severability clause:

If any provision of this act or its application to any person or circumstance is held invalid, the remainder of the act or the application of the provision to other persons or circumstances is not affected.

Initiative - Timelines
Timelines can vary, but the most common local laws have been prescribed by state law.

Circulation period
Signatures followed by a date of signing which is more than six months prior to the date of filing of the petition shall be stricken. (RCW 35A.01.040(8))

Submitting signatures
Petitions are filed with the officer designated to receive the petition (usually the city clerk). The clerk transmits the petition to the county auditor for certification of signatures. If an insufficiency is found, petitioners have 10 days to amend. (RCW 35A.11.100, RCW 35.17.240 to 360)

Election procedure and results
After certification, the council has 20 days to pass the ordinance without alteration, or it shall cause to be called a special election to be held on the next election date, as provided in RCW 29.13.020, that occurs not less than 45 days thereafter, for submission of the proposed ordinance without alteration, to a vote of the people unless a general election will occur within 90 days, in which event submission must be made on the general election ballot. Majority vote passes the ordinance. (RCW 35A.11.100, RCW 35.17.240 to 360)

When the Initiative becomes law
There are certain exemptions that exist, but generally speaking, the initiative will become law no sooner than 30 days after certification of a public vote, and are subject to referendum. Here is the applicable section of law.

Initiative - FAQ
The Secretary of state has a good Frequently Asked Questions section [here].

Recent Examples of Other Local Initiatives
Red Light Cameras [here].
$15 / hr Minimum Wage [here].
Renton Library Initiative [here].
Spokane Community Bill of rights [here].

Other Resources
Freedom Foundation’s Union Transparency and Reform Project [printer-friendly, original]


Scott Roberts

Citizen Action Network Director

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