ABQ Democracy dollars most likely headed for election, just not in November

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Boxes of signed petitions were delivered to the Albuquerque City Clerk in early August.

Albuquerque’s city attorney said last night while he doesn’t have a firm answer about when the city would hold an election on a successful ballot initiative, city charter language stipulates that an election is required.

“At some point this matter will have to be heard,” said Esteban Aguilar, Albuquerque city attorney, at a special meeting called by the Bernalillo County Commission to reconsider its decision last week not to place a public financing ballot initiative referred to as “democracy dollars” on the November ballot. Once again, the commissioners didn’t muster enough votes to place the ballot item, kicking it to the city.

The Albuquerque city charter allows questions to be placed before voters through direct petition rather than always having to be green-lighted by the city council. Albuquerque residents submitted to the city clerk earlier this month almost 28,000 petition signatures to ask voters to decide whether to increase the amount of money publicly financed candidates receive, and to change the date of city elections.

The city clerk certified almost 20,000 of those signatures, enough to trigger a vote under city rules. Organizers of the effort hoped county commissioners would place it on the November ballot, which they are empowered but not required to do, so more public financing money would be available to qualified candidates during next year’s regular city election. Instead, an election on the measure will most likely be held by the city sometime in the next year.

Article six in Albuquerque’s charter requires a public election within 90 days of the date a ballot initiative to amend the city charter is filed with the city, but other laws stipulate that special elections can’t be held within 70 days of a general election. The city is still trying to determine when a special election might be feasible or if the measure can be held for the 2019 city regular election, said Aguilar.

County Commission Chair Steven Quezada agreed to the special meeting after community groups said last week’s meeting didn’t sufficiently allow for public comment on the issue. Quezada voted no both last week and last night, tipping the balance against putting the ballot initiative before voters in November.

One issue that both Quezada and Commissioner Jim Smith expressed concern about was the potential for a court challenge against the measure for “logrolling,” a term for when a ballot question includes more than one item. Amidst the crowd of public speakers supporting the measure, local Republican city attorney Patrick Rogers told commissioners he believed the bill had “three separate items” and that it would be challenged in court as an example of logrolling.

Rogers himself just last year challenged on behalf of a coalition of business groups the placement of a paid sick leave voter initiative on the Albuquerque city election ballot, using, in part, a similar logrolling argument. U.S. District Judge Shannon Bacon rejected that argument, issuing an opinion that the state constitution only bars logrolling in bills that come before the state legislature.

But Smith, also a Republican, agreed with Rogers. “I was willing to split the three questions,” he said. “But we can’t do that because they came to us as one particular petition. I’m nervous about passing something that will be challenged in court, it’ll cost the county some money.”

Quezada, a Democrat, expressed concern about potential litigation as well as a crowded ballot that would make it hard for his constituents to read. But he also sought assurance from attorneys present that Albuquerque would hold its own election should the county commission refuse to place the measure on the November ballot.

The final vote was Quezada and Smith against, and commissioners Debbie O’Malley and Maggie Hart Stebbins for. The fifth commissioner, Lonnie Talbert, was absent. Talbert voted last week against placing the measure on the ballot.