Petition seeks to allow Burlington residents to bring issues directly to voters

Published: Feb. 11, 2022 at 6:12 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Could a ballot strategy used in California be coming to Burlington? It would allow people to petition for hot-button issues to go directly to voters and carry the weight of law.

Proposition Zero would create a form of direct democracy which effectively would bypass elected officials and would allow citizens to put binding resolutions, such as ordinances, on the ballot if they get enough petition signatures.

Currently, in order for questions to hit the ballot, they need approval from the City Council and the mayor.

In recent years, the council has said no to some citizen petitions, including one that would have opposed F-35s at the Burlington airport and another that aimed to block the makeover of City Hall Park.

“It’s great to have City Council and very passionate people dedicated to serving there, but there has to be a way for voters to make its will known and actually be respected as an equal branch of government,” said Faried Munarsyah, a proponent of Proposition Zero.

Munarsyah wants Burlington’s charter changed to allow this sort of direct democracy to allow people to vote on proposals directly from the people.

While many Vermont communities allow petitioned matters to go directly to voters, the results of those referenda are generally just advisory. Proposition Zero would go a step further and allow citizens to bring forward binding ordinance changes.

“So there’s definitely a disconnect between voters’ wishes and what officials are able to implement, so we aim to fix that,” Munarsyah said.

Middlebury College Political Science Professor Bert Johnson says this is an idea that is common in California politics.

Proponents say it can give the power to the citizens and could increase voter participation but that it’s difficult for average citizens to find the time to adequately research every complex initiative which could be put on the ballot by interest groups.

“The advantage to having elected officials is they can deliberate over the complex details of public policy. So initiatives are good for simple solutions but if those are simple solutions to complex problems that could pose a problem,” Johnson said.

Burlington City Attorney Dan Richardson says there are 13 municipalities including Winooski, South Burlington, and Essex which have ordinance initiatives included in the city charter.

“That has a very strong and compelling message to people because they do believe that’s the way things should run. At the same time, there are negatives that come with it and part of it is you kind of lose control over how the legislative process works,” Richardson said.

Supporters of Prop Zero will be circulating petitions at the polls on Town Meeting Day. They’ll ultimately need voters in a future election to support the idea to get this form of direct democracy into the city charter.

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