Straight to the ballot? New push get issues in front of Burlington voters faster

Published: Dec. 19, 2022 at 5:44 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 19, 2022 at 7:03 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A resident-led charter change in Burlington would allow voters to put binding ordinances straight onto the ballot. Proponents of what was called Proposition Zero have been working for more than a year to gain the signatures needed to circumvent the legislative process of the City Council and mayoral approval and put this charter change on the ballot.

“This is bringing back Vermont tradition to make Burlington great again,” said Faried Munarsyah, a Proposition Zero proponent.

In small towns in Vermont, direct democracy lives in the form of Town Meeting Day where an individual can bring an issue to the floor for a vote. But in larger communities like Burlington, that doesn’t exist anymore. Proposition Zero aims to change that.

“This is the first step. We need to affirm people’s human right to participate in collective decisions that impact our lives. Burington should be the leading entity in Vermont when it comes to the really hard-to-solve, seemingly intractable problems,” Munarsyah said.

Munarsyah has run for City Council in the past and failed. He is pushing for the proposed charter change that would allow an item to go on the ballot as long as a petition is submitted to the city signed by at least 5% of legal voters. That would circumvent the City Council which right now decides what goes on the ballot.

Munarsyah says Proposition Zero would serve as an extra check for the legislative process and increase voter participation at the ballot box and by encouraging neighbors to work together to solve issues.

Currently, this referenda system is most common out west in places like California.

“Representative democracy where voters elect city councilors and the mayor to work really hard to find compromise and get these policy details right,” said Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington.

Weinberger staunchly rejects Proposition Zero. He says that for more than 150 years, Burlington has depended on elected representatives to strike the right balance with ordinances before sending them to the ballot.

He’s worried this could upend the way the city government functions.

“What this would do is instead say that basically for whatever issue some organized group decided to pursue, we’d move away from that type of deliberative democracy and essentially go to referendum government,” Weinberger said.

Middlebury College Political Science Professor Bert Johnson says there’s evidence that suggests referenda encourage legislative bodies in municipalities to be more mindful of citizen preferences when taking up potential legislation. But he says they usually fail.

“Voters tend to by default vote no unless they had a really good reason to vote yes,” Johnson said.

That’s partly because voters need to research these proposals to understand them.

“In some states especially that have initiatives and referenda, they can be complex, they can be confusing to voters, and they can tie the hands of voters and they can tie the hands of legislators so that they can’t take quick action to serve the public interest when it might be necessary,” Johnson said.

This proposed charter change, along with another one we told you about last week to create a citizen-led police oversight board, both need to go through the charter change process, meaning even if they pass, they still need approval from the state Legislature and the governor.

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Burlington voters to weigh in on community police oversight board