Scottsdale’s own version of the Electoral College (nice idea at the time, an outmoded pain the neck today) is called the “citizen petition.” It’s something that sounds like such a good idea — that is, until you take it out of the box and plug it in.
There are two reasons why.
First, the 1951 City Charter says that any resident (that’s singular) may go before the City Council with a written petition, which the council must act upon within 30 days. The charter is silent about subject matter; it could be to declare fuchsia Scottsdale’s official color or give Darth Vader the key to the city.
It was a product of a time before cell phones and e-mails, with which today’s residents have fairly good access to seven council members, any one of whom today could put that resident’s concern before his or her fellow council members.
Or, more likely, he or she could turn the matter over to city staff — with the resident’s right to appeal to the council if unsatisfied, without adding several minutes to meetings that exceed three hours more than they don’t.
Things are different now.
In May 2006 the Tribune reported the average number of citizen petitions between 2000 and 2004 was two per year. But in the nearly 18 months from January 2005 to May 2006, there were 18. In the first six months of this year, there were 17.
Second, with rare exceptions, they don’t get desired results. All they do is give the petitioner (usually singular) three minutes in the oratorical spotlight on the city’s cable Channel 11.
Of the 17 petitions presented in 2007, 13 had been acted upon before Tuesday’s council meeting (where there were four!).
Of these 13, only four resulted in actions other than denial or “no action.” Three of them involved multiple petitioners. One that demanded immediate action was referred to staff.
Filing a petition by yourself is a nearly ironclad guarantee of getting nothing. You can almost see it on council members’ faces. These things take them by surprise and convincing them usually takes more than three minutes.
The council ought to refer to voters the question of requiring a certain number of signatures on citizen petitions, say, at least 50. If you can get at least 49 other people to agree with you, it’s likelier you’ve got a concern with broader implications. If you can’t, then start contacting your council members, set up appointments, explain what you’re looking for.
The image of the lone crusader standing up to the government is an admittedly powerful one. And if there was no other way to be heard, it would be easier to keep the petition process as it is written.
But the fact is that other, more effective ways exist to get what you want from City Hall. It’s not as flashy as being on TV, but it has a better chance of success.