Op-ed: Think about the importance of your signature on a petition

Berkeley’s iconic wisteria is exploding. Our young trees on Solano are budding out after their (barely) second winter. And as spring declares its arrival, so does our upcoming election season.

As a result, we should all get ready to be pursued by both paid and volunteer initiative petition signature gatherers on our street corners, in front of Peet’s, the Bowl, the Cheeseboard and the Farmers Market.

As you enjoy the fine weather this spring and frequent your favorite community shopping area, please think carefully about your signature and its importance. Consider asking the signature gatherer a few questions:

  • What compelling issue(s) demand a voter initiative in order to be resolved?
  • What may be unintended consequences of the ballot measure?
  • Do we want to lock such a proposal into our charter or municipal code that can be changed only by going back to the ballot?
  • Is there a hidden agenda in the proposal and what is it?
  • Who is sponsoring the initiative and/or possibly paying the signature gatherers?

If you are satisfied with the answers to your questions and believe the voters can make an informed choice, by all means sign the petition. If you are not, please don’t.

Berkeley has possibly the most intelligent and politically informed voting community in the state. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t express my concerns: this year there are dozens of proposed statewide and local ballot measures. In Berkeley alone there are seven initiatives for the ballot in various stages of the process. You will probably run into a petition once a day if you are out and about much.

I know many of us believe that to ‘put it to a vote’ or ‘let the people decide’ – no matter what the circumstances or the consequences – is an important right of direct democracy. This may seem appropriate in theory, but in practice it is too often a sledgehammer approach to an honest problem needing a more nuanced solution. And it’s an ineffective way to govern. Witness that the state of California has one of the largest (if not the largest) constitutions in the world. Because most citizen initiatives leave little room for midcourse corrections, the legislative body is left with no alternative but returning to the voters in 2 years or 4 years to clean up the mess.

I have always been an advocate of informed decision making. I sincerely believe that elected officials must go through a process of gathering information from a variety of perspectives, weighing the public benefits and implications of those perspectives and then developing a policy or law that emerges from such a process. We rely on a highly professional staff, many boards and commissions with very dedicated citizen volunteers, and a well-informed electorate eager to participate in the process and inform our decisions.

One of the obvious problems with the ballot box legislation is that we skip this vetting process. Many voters, facing a lengthy, complex ballot rely on a few well chosen (and programmed) phrases. Then the campaigns utilize three or four soundbites sent out on a couple of 4 x 6 postcards with a warm and fuzzy picture or two. Maybe a few of us get to a League of Women Voters forum and even fewer actually read the legal language in the voters’ pamphlet.

Of course citizens who sincerely believe their elected officials have erred should have the right and the means to referend those decisions. This is a part of the necessary checks and balances of our legislative process. But too often in these cases we are still left with soundbites and photo ops to garner our vote.

Democracy is fragile . . . even in Berkeley. Your informed input is vital to strengthening our community and that is one thing we can all agree upon.

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Laurie Capitelli serves Berkeley as a City Councilman representing District 5.