Boulder petitions will move online as COVID stymies signature collection

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020 (Updated Saturday, April 18)

Chalk another casualty — or at least significant impairment  — up to COVID-19: Direct democracy. Resident-led petition pushes in Boulder have been all but shut down by social distancing and stay-at-home orders, and city council will likely turn to digital means to help get things back on track

There are current efforts in Boulder to pose three separate questions to voters. State and local law dictates that each group submit the requisite number of signatures by set dates; fail to do so, and the issues will not be placed on November’s ballot.

No Eviction Without Representation: Seeks to provide legal representation to tenants facing eviction. Currently, they are not entitled to representation. Lawyers from nonprofit entities already serving low-income populations would be paid for out of a city fund established for that purpose. Revenue would come from a $75 fee on rental licenses, paid by landlords. (More info: newrboulder.com)

Signature requirements: 3,336 by June 5

End the Muni: Seeks to repurpose revenue from the utility occupation tax away from Boulder’s efforts to create a municipal electric utility and toward “solar incentives, wind incentives, a renewable energy certificates broker and programs that promote energy use reduction.” (More info: endthemuni.org)

Signature requirements: 3,336 by June 5

Bedrooms Are for People: Would amend the city’s occupancy limits that prohibit more than 3 or 4 unrelated persons from living together in one home. New occupancy limits would allow homes with fewer than four bedrooms to hold four people. Homes with four or more bedrooms could have occupancy equal to the number of bedrooms plus one person. (More info: bedroomsareforpeople.com)

Signature requirements: 4,048 by August 5 (Since this constitutes a change to the city’s charter, there are different requirements)

No Eviction Without Representation was the quickest off the mark, becoming certified to start signature-gathering in early January. The group has collected close to 2,000 signatures, according to a spokesperson.

The others were filed in March, as the pandemic had already begun to take hold. End the Muni was cleared to collect signatures March 6, one week before Boulder County’s first confirmed case. Bedrooms Are for People filed the day before a local stay-at-home order went into effect.

Neither group has collected signatures, representatives said Wednesday.

The politics of petitions

As in any year, council can choose to place citizen-led initiatives on the ballot with a majority vote of members. Council members indicated during a March 23 scheduling meeting that they were interested in doing so, so long as the efforts demonstrated they had significant support in the community.

Tuesday’s discussion was supposed to lay out what criteria would meet that threshold. The presentation from Carr almost immediately got waylaid with substantive questions about the initiatives themselves, forcing him to issue a reminder to council members on what they were supposed to be discussing.

“Tonight we’re not taking about the merits of these things,” Carr said. “These idea is that you will establish criteria to demonstrate whether or not council will put these on the ballot themselves.”

It is impossible to separate politics from the discussion, which began with Carr describing each of the efforts underway.

Members of this and past councils have repeatedly rejected the idea of altering occupancy limits. The Housing Advisory Board was roundly chastised for suggesting, in 2019, that it explore possible changes to the city’s rules.  (HAB made the suggestion again this year.)

Both Sam Weaver and Bob Yates argued at the time that the ballot was the appropriate place for occupancy limits to be decided. (Weaver was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.)

The five newly and recently re-elected members of council addressed occupancy limits on the campaign trail: Aaron BrockettRachel Friend, Junie Joseph and Adam Swetlik expressed a desire to alter them in some way; Mark Wallach professed ambivalence.

Yates felt they should be left alone — unless residents started making noise about wanting them changed. “Until such time as people say the number is too high or too low,” he told the Beat in a re-election interview, “I’m gonna park that in the category of we more or less got that right.”

Municipalization, though divisive in the community, maintains strong majority support among council. Although some newly elected leaders have offered tepid support at best, Yates to date has been the only vocal critic of the process, using his most recent newsletter to bemoan that funds dedicated to the muni can’t be repurposed in this time of crisis.

In a Monday scheduling meeting, Carr informed council that a quarterly check-in on the municipalization process was being postponed to July and that a ballot measure asking voters for more money would not be pursued this year. “We’ll figure out some other way to get it through,” he said.

Yates questioned the decision to cancel the May update, arguing that council should be consulted.

“I’ve had that conversation with all council members but you,” Carr replied, “and they think it’s appropriate.”

The latest: Boulder’s third condemnation attempt paused by court. Daily Camera

No Eviction Without Representation is an issue new to council, and likely the least controversial. Even then, it’s not guaranteed support because it is opposed by landlords. Among its backers are residents who have been critical of council on other topics, such as homelessness and police oversight.

Yates acknowledged from the virtual dais Tuesday that the ideals within the initiatives were not popular among his peers: “I’m sensing there may not be five votes in favor of any one of these three.”

It was he who kicked off what eventually become something of a consensus: That, despite earlier direction, council was not interested in usurping laws already on the books with lower thresholds or longer deadlines.

“The purpose of the residents’ initiative as a companion to council’s right to put things on the ballot is so that there is direct democracy,” Yates said. While “it’s regrettable” that petitioners’ efforts may be doomed by the inability to gather signatures, “there’s a lot of bad stuff coming out of this, unfortunately,” including the dozen-plus local deaths from COVID and the 737 city of Boulder workers furloughed earlier that same day.

Now is not the time to “make up new rules,” councilwoman Mary Young agreed. “If they don’t get the signatures, I’d be very reluctant to say close enough, you get to go.”

“I’d like to stick with the letter of the law,” councilwoman Mirabai Nagle echoed. “You have to get exactly what is required by the state or by us.”

Councilwoman Friend felt that futzing with new thresholds or deadlines to appease the three groups that have already filed would be unfair to organizers who hadn’t yet started the process. She knew of “several” in the works, she said.

So what solutions is council offering?

Members did nod to the extraordinary circumstances by supporting electronic signature-gathering of some kind. Boulder is heading down this path already with an online petitioning system, but that won’t be fully functional until 2021.

Two groups — End the Muni and Bedrooms Are for People — perhaps in an attempt to meet the now-abandoned vague notion of community support council initially floated, have launched online efforts through popular petition site Change.org. But in materials distributed to council head of next week’s meeting, it seems council will require more stringent requirements for collecting digital signatures.

Council at the April 21 meeting will contemplate an emergency ordinance allowing the collection of “electronic” signatures. The means of collection are not specified, but organizers must remit to the city clerk a spreadsheet of names along with the date the petition was signed, address, zip code, voter registration number, telephone number and email address.

Change.org does not typically provide that information to circulators, a spokesperson for Bedrooms Are For People said, so it’s unclear how they and other groups will move forward.

To reduce fraudulent signatures, the clerk will contact 100 signers at random to confirm that they knowingly and willingly supported the petition. If 10 people contacted assert their signature was falsified, the entire petition will be invalidated.

Names and addresses of those signing will be posted online. Similarly, if 10% of individuals listed “contact the city to disavow the signature,” the petition will be invalidated.

“That could reduce the risk” of fraudulent activity, Carr said. “I don’t ever think you’re going to eliminate it.”

The compromise does potentially create issues of equity. Several low-income neighborhoods in Boulder, including mobile home parks, lack adequate internet access. With libraries and coffee shops closed, they may struggle to participate.

The 10% threshold for invalidation also could invite organized effort to sink petitions: Those opposed to the measures could enlist individuals to sign up en masse, then contact the city to report fraud. However, it would take hundreds of people to coordinate such a counter effort. Circulators may be able to circumvent that by contacting signers themselves, though that will likely add undue burden.

Even paper petitions are subject to some fraud, as councilwoman Friend pointed out,. Figuring out how to move the process online was crucial not only to democracy but to residents’ sense of wellbeing during stressful time, she said Tuesday.

“This is a time we need some hope and things that feel good in this world,” she said. I don’t think this is the right year to tinker with democracy. … If we have a will, we probably will have a way.”

Because the city charter allows non-paper signatures — the change was made in 2018 after voters approved it, paving the way for online petitions — Boulder should be protected from legal challenges, Carr said. The city should also be shielded by its home-rule authority.

The proposed ordinance is far from a perfect solution,” staff wrote in a memo to council. “The intent is to balance the community value of direct democracy against the need to protect our community in this emergency.”

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance will be held May 5.

Read a play-by-play of Tuesday’s discussion

Author’s note: This article was updated to reflect staff’s proposal for online signatures, released Thursday evening.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle

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