Local Initiatives in Iowa

by Jennifer L. Crull

When we talk about initiatives and referendums we have a tendency to think of issues on a state level. We often hear about issues that influence states such as California, Colorado, and Oregon to name a few states that have had recent state-led votes on issues that people want to see changed within those states. But people-led issues aren’t limited to just states — they also apply to local issues at the city level.

When it comes to the state of Iowa, the only way that we have votes at a state level on issues is if they are introduced at the legislative level. These come in the form of Constitutional Amendments that appear on a statewide ballot, and they allow the citizens of the state to vote for or against the proposed amendment. The most recent vote for Iowa was in 2010 when we had two statewide ballot questions. The first measure was on dedicating a portion of sales tax revenue for natural resources the next time that the State Legislature increased the sales tax in Iowa. This measure passed with 62.57 percent YES votes.[1] The second measure that was on the ballot in 2010 was the Iowa Constitutional Convention Question. This measure appears on a statewide ballot every ten years per the state constitution. This measure was defeated by receiving 67.16 percent NO votes.[2]

As you can see, we are used to voting occasionally for statewide amendments. But let’s take a look at the local level of government where we hope to have the most impact on citizen-led issues. We are used to having votes at the county and city level concerning issues that our local elected officials have placed on the ballot, such as a school board looking for a bond approval to build a new school, a county looking for support for a new jail, or a city looking to build a new library. But most of these issues are fiscal in nature, and while citizens are involved with getting people out to vote in support of or against these various issues, it isn’t the same as a citizen deciding that they want to change how the local government does something.

Cities in Iowa are classified as either home-rule-charter cities or general-law cities. In Iowa we have 942 general-law cities and five home-rule-charter cities. The five home-rule-charter cities we will be talking about in this article are Clinton, Fort Dodge, Marion, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids.[3] Home rule is from the twenty-fifth amendment to the Iowa Constitution, which states the following:

Municipal home rule. Sec. 38A. Municipal corporations are granted home rule power and authority, not inconsistent with the laws of the general assembly, to determine their local affairs and government, except that they shall not have power to levy any tax unless expressly authorized by the general assembly. The rule or proposition of law that a municipal corporation possesses and can exercise only those powers granted in express words is not a part of the law of this state.[4]

These five cities have the ability to bring forth a public initiative and make local changes. The Lucy Burns Institute has just released a very useful publication called Local Ballot Initiatives by Leslie Graves. This publication takes you through all the steps necessary to see your idea implemented. “The ballot initiative provides regular citizens a chance to be part of the checks and balances of government.”[5]

This publication works to answer the following questions for citizens living in a home-rule-charter city:
• What is a “local ballot initiative”?
• Why do people use the local ballot initiative process?
• What do you need to know in order to make a difference through the local ballot initiative process?
• Which cities, counties, and municipalities allow this form of local legislation?
• How can you identify whether a particular city allows the use of local I&R [initiative and referendums]?
• What are the specific laws in my city?[6]

Many people may wonder what exactly a “local ballot initiative” is. “A local ballot initiative is a form of direct democracy. It is a procedure under which local voters directly propose (‘initiate’) laws. It bypasses the governing body of the local unit of government – whether that is a county, city, village or other local unit of government – by directly voting on the proposed law at the ballot box.”[7] All it takes is an idea in someone’s mind, and the next thing you know you have changed legislation at the local level. People use the “local ballot initiative” for four different reasons:

1. To change a law in the city.
2. To increase public awareness of an issue.
3. To build an effective grassroots organization.
4. To boost their own political career by associating themselves with a particular issue.[8]

Some of the issues you may see at the local level are alcohol sales on Sunday, term limits for elected officials, signage rules, zoning issues, city mottoes, and business regulations. Currently there is citizen initiative taking place in Iowa City concerning drones being used in Iowa City. A group of local activists are currently gathering signatures to pass a city ordinance concerning the use of drones and other surveillance systems in Iowa City.[9] The booklet from Lucy Burns helps walk you through the whole process from start to finish. The following is the first list of questions you need to take the time to answer before you undertake your city initiative:

• How many signatures must be collected?
• How many days do we have for the signature-collection period?
• Must we submit our proposed law to election officials before we can circulate our petitions?
• Which agency or office is in charge of administering local ballot initiative procedures?
• Are there any laws governing who can legally circulate petitions in our city?
• Once we submit our signatures, when does the city have to schedule an election on our measure?[10]

This booklet is a very useful tool for anyone planning on grassroots activity to change the laws within a community. I would encourage anyone living in Clinton, Fort Dodge, Marion, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids to take the time to check out this booklet from Lucy Burns. As any person knows, we have the ability to make the most change at a local level. This quote from Paul Jacobs from the booklet really sums up why we need to be concerned at all levels:

You can make a big difference nationally by acting locally. Most cities have a citizen-initiative process allowing any serious individual to organize people to petition a needed reform on the ballot for a vote. If the voters agree, you’ve changed your town and the world. That’s why they call it ‘direct democracy.’[11]

I hope that if you take the time to review this booklet it will help reveal just how to make the laws change in your community if you live in a home-rule-charter city.

[1] Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund Amendment, Measure 1 (2010), BallotPedia.org, <http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Iowa_Natural_Resources_and_Outdoor_Recreation _Trust_Fund_Amendment,_Measure_1_(2010)> accessed on March 20, 2013.

[2] Iowa Constitutional Convention Question, Measure 2 (2010), BallotPedia.org, <http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Iowa_Constitutional_Convention_Question,_Measure _2_(2010)> accessed on March 20, 2013.

[3] Laws governing local ballot measures in Iowa, Ballotpedia.org <http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Laws_governing_local_ballot_measures_in_Iowa> accessed on March 20, 2013.
[4] State of Iowa Constitution, Article III, Section 38A., p. 15, <http://www.limitedgovernment.org/publications/Iowa%20Constitution%202011.pdf> accessed on March 20, 2013.
[5] Leslie Graves, Local Ballot Initiatives, Lucy Burns Institute, 2012, p. 3, < http://www.lucyburns.org/press-releases/lucy-burns-institute-releases-citizens-guide-to-local-ballot-initiatives/> accessed March 27, 2013.
[6] Ibid., p. 6.
[7] Ibid., p. 7.
[8] Ibid., p. 9.
[9] Adam Sullivan, “Group working to ban city from using drones,” Iowa City Press Citizen, January 28, 2013, <http://www.press-citizen.com/article/20130129/NEWS01/301290021/Group-working-ban-city-from-using-drones?nclick_check=1> accessed on March 28, 2013.
[10] Graves, p. 14.
[11] Ibid., p. 6.


Jennifer L. Crull is an IT Specialist with Public Interest Institute.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

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