Aug. 5 2009 12:00 AM

A ballot drive seeking “complete streets” gets political

Who would not agree that an effort to make Lansing streets safer and more accessible for walkers and bikers is good?

Most likely, no one. But when it came to trying to get an ordinance on the city books to create a plan for “complete streets,” a group of local activists circumvented the usual city legislative mechanism — City Council — and went the route of a petition drive: a little-used way of creating a law that requires the gathering of signatures of 5 percent of registered city voters within 90 days.

Starting in May, the group Walk and Bike Lansing, headed by activist Jessica Yorko (a candidate for the Council in Tuesday’s primary election), collected over 5,000 signatures, of which 4,520 were verified by the city clerk. With about 83,500 registered voters, that exceeded the 5 percent requirement. The ordinance will be up for a public hearing at next Monday’s Council meeting.

Bound by the City Charter, this leaves Council with several options. The body can pass the ordinance — as is — vote it down or send it to the ballot on Nov. 3. The Council’s inability to change the ordinance before it is made law might create a potentially sticky political situation — it could put some members of Council at the juncture of voting against a well-intentioned law because they cannot amend it before voting on it.

In the past, up or down votes have created controversy. In 2008, a bid to seek a grant from the state for improvements to Frances Park was killed in a deadlocked vote because some Council members felt that some neighbors of the project were not fully informed of what the improvements would mean for the surrounding neighborhoods. This created the perception that some members of Council were against park improvements.

In a year where two of those who voted against the Frances Park grant last year are running for election — At-Large Councilman Brian Jefferies, who is seeking another term, and At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, who is running for mayor — some believe that the complete streets petition is being put up to create controversy.

Yorko says that the reason this ordinance was brought by petition and not through Council was a concern that the ordinance might be nitpicked to death. The group wanted its language passed exactly. Specifically, Yorko referred to an ordinance that was before Council this winter over snow removal. The snow removal ordinance would have strengthened city laws about clearing snow from sidewalks, but some on Council were against it because they felt it would encumber the elderly and those who could not afford to pay fines. The ordinance was never passed.

“The amount of signatures show this isn’t a fringe issue,” Yorko said. “We’re trying to prove something for sure, that this is a mainstream issue.”

The ordinance does not contain any mandates. It asks that the city draft a plan for non-motorized access, which could potentially include connecting sidewalks and adding bike lanes to some streets. The ordinance also asks, but does not mandate, that the city use 5 percent of state transportation money for complete streets, meaning streets that are accesible and safe for pedestrian and bikers, while still allowing room for cars. The ordinance itself was written, Yorko said, with help mainly from the AARP (which favors complete streets for the benefit of seniors) political activist Amber Shinn (she helped craft last year’s Proposition 2 state ballot question on stem-cell research, which passed) and members of Walk and Bike Lansing. The ordinance also received guidance from City Attorney Brig Smith, who, Yorko said, sat in on some planning meetings to make sure that the legal jargon was correct and, in the end, signed off on the final wording of the ordinance.

And Walk and Bike Lansing’s cause is mainstream, for sure. At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar helped gather signatures and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero threw the group a party after the petition drive was over. The administration expressed its support of the initiative publicly at Monday’s City Council meeting.

When asked why she didn’t just bring the ordinance through a Council committee, Dunbar said that she didn’t think the ordinance would look the same once the body was done with it.

“Definitely, the best way to keep (the language) as is is with the petition drive,” she said.

However, at a special Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night, it was discovered that the Council could change the language of the ordinance, by first passing it then amending it. The ability to change the ordinance, it seemed, was important for some members of Council. When this was first brought up at last week’s City Council meeting, some seemed to bristle at the idea of an up or down vote with no ability to change the ordinance.

Wood said that the only sticking point she had with the ordinance is whether Council has the ability to change it.

“My only concern with this is making sure that if there are issues, and it would be need to be changed, the potential mechanism is there to do that,” Wood said. “If there was a rubber stamp, you wouldn’t need a Council.”

Jeffries expressed similar concern prior to Monday night’s meeting.

“My questions are more technical in nature. I agree with the ordinance,” he said. “I’m not at this point clear on how this actually will work. If we put this on the ballot are we adopting it as is, do we have ability to change it?”

First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt asked Smith what the Council could do to possibly have some say in the ordinance.
Smith said that, according to case law and the state Constitution, a legislative body is “presumed” to know what it’s doing. Smith concluded that the Council could change the ordinance, but only after it was approved by Council. Smith said he was not certain if Council could do so at the same meeting, but he thought it could likely do so at the next meeting.

If the ordinance were sent to the ballot, Council could not change it for two years, if voters approve it. At the end of Monday’s meeting, Dunbar questioned why some Council members would want to change it — even though no member has expressed a desire to change anything, but just if there is the ability to change it.

“The only thing I can assume is there some intent (to change the ordinance),” Dunbar said. “It would be easier to pass it (in Council), but it would be nice to have some assurance that it wouldn’t be changed.”