Will Anti-Streetcar Referendum Succeed?
The process is far more complicated legally than has been reported. Which will make it harder for opponents.
The whole thing sounds simple, right? You get about 31,000 city voters to sign a petition requiring the city to have a referendum on the streetcar, and it goes before the voters for an up or down vote. But in fact, it’s a far more complicated process.
For starters, the anti-streetcar folks face a tight time crunch. Under the law, they have 60 days to get the signatures. But they want to get this before voters in the Spring election on April 7, which means, by law, the petitions must be completed by 70 days before the election. That’s around February 1, and the drive started January 5, which leaves about 26 days to get the signatures. In fact, Chris Kliesmet of the CRG Network, which is organizing the drive, hopes to have all the signatures in time for next Common Council meeting on January 21.
“If I had 60 days, it would be a slam dunk,” he says of the petition drive. But can they do it in half the time? “Right now I have no idea,” he admits. “The problem is logistics.”
Kliesmet has long experience working on recalls and petitions, going back to the effort against Milwaukee County Executive F. Thomas Ament, whose administration created the infamously lucrative pension plan. “We got 180,000 signatures in 28 days,” Kliesmet recalls. But of course, there was a media frenzy over the pension scandal, which made the process quite easy.
This, by contrast, is an issue that’s getting scanty coverage from the media, and the media itself fields far fewer reporters than it did 13 years ago. Not to mention that the petition drive is coming amid dreadful weather. “Yeah, it’s a concern,” Kliesmet says. “Snow on the ground, it’s cold.” Nay, freezing.
From there it gets even more complicated. Should the requisite signatures be gained, the petition — which requires that a majority of voters in a referendum must approve any Common Council project to spend at least $20 million on any rail transit project — will be presented to the council. The council could then choose to pass this into law, and the referendum would be held.
But the council was already asked to approve a referendum, back in July, 2011, when it first approved the streetcar plan, and it voted against this. “Even aldermen who opposed the streetcar voted against the referendum,” Ald. Bob Bauman, a fervent streetcar supporter, notes.
So it’s unlikely the council will adopt the measure supported by the petitioners, in which case it must go before the voters. In essence, this will be a referendum on having a referendum. If the voters approve the proposed ordinance to require a referendum to approve any spending of $20 million or more on rail, this would then require a second referendum to vote up or down on the streetcar.
In short, the April referendum would be the referendum on whether to have a referendum. The actual referendum to vote up or down on the streetcar wouldn’t occur until the next election, in February 2016.
And by then the issue could be moot. In fact, it could be moot by the April referendum on the referendum. Because the Common Council is certain to vote up or down on the streetcar financing plan at its February 10 meeting. As Jeramey Jannene has reported, the streetcar’s opponents on the council will have used up all their legal methods of delaying the vote by then. And a majority seems poised to vote yes on the plan.
Once the council votes yes, it’s all over, Bauman says. He says the city attorney’s office has researched this and concluded that under case law, a referendum can’t undo an action already taken by the Common Council. (The city attorney’s office did not get back to my requests for an interview.) That would make sense, all the more so if any of the construction and spending has been undertaken; otherwise a referendum could overturn any decision of the council to spend money no matter how far back in time.
Kliesmet, however, says his group would hope the courts would rule the council couldn’t take any action once it receives the petition signatures. “That’s what we’re hanging our hat on.”
Bauman remains confident this won’t hold up legally and contends the petition drive “has nothing to do with the streetcar,” anyway. He notes the second referendum to vote up or down on the streetcar will occur in the February 2016 election, which is the mayoral primary. “This really about defeating (Mayor Tom) Barrett and driving a wedge between the African American portion of the Democratic base and the rest of the city,” he says. As Urban Milwaukee recently reported, Republicans and conservatives opposed to Barrett may end up supporting African American Ald. Joe Davis for mayor, and Davis has turned into a streetcar opponent.
Kliesmet and veteran Republican PR operative Craig Peterson, who is also supporting the petition drive and the candidacy of Davis, both contest the picture Bauman paints. Kliesmet says the two-stage referendum process could be avoided if the council simply enacts the proposed ordinance to have a referendum upon receiving the requisite signatures.
Moreover, if there is such opposition to the streetcar, why weren’t any of the aldermen who voted for it defeated in 2012? “That’s because it wasn’t much of an issue back then,” Kliesmet says.
Nonsense, Bauman responds. He notes that when the original Common Council vote approving the streetcar was taken in July 2011, “we had extensive public hearings on this, the same talk radio assaults, the same media attention, and actually there was more Journal Sentinel coverage than now.” (Kliesmet expressed frustration at the lack of newspaper coverage.)
Bauman estimates that all the emails, phone calls and letters coming to City Hall are running 65 percent in favor of the streetcar.
But Kliesmet still hopes to carry the day, whatever the difficulties. “It’s a challenge. It’s fun, though.”
-Kliesmet is hoping that if the drive hasn’t gotten the requisite signatures by January 21, the council will give his group until the February 10 meeting, even though that would run afoul of the law requiring the signatures 70 days prior to the election when the referendum proposal is on the ballot. Sounds like an issue — and there could be others — that ends up in the courts.
-Bauman says most of the messages from the voters coming to City Hall are through the Urban Milwaukee portal, which allows people to sign in and express their opinion and is then forwarded to the Common Council. “We’ve gotten 1,800 messages through the Urban Milwaukee portal,” Bauman says. “It’s the most effective communication format I’ve seen in all my years here in City Hall.”
Just trying to do our part for the democracy.
Milwaukee Streetcar Maps and Renderings
Milwaukee Streetcar Coverage
- The Story Behind the Streetcar Referendum – Michael Horne and Bruce Murphy – January 8th, 2015
- Council Delays Streetcar Until January – Jeramey Jannene – December 16th, 2014
- Committee Takes No Action on Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 10th, 2014
- Committee Approves Milwaukee Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – December 9th, 2014
- RACM Approves Tax Funding for Streetcar – Michael Horne – December 8th, 2014
- How to Sell the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 28th, 2014
- Next Stops for the Streetcar – Michael Horne – November 24th, 2014
- Barrett Moving Forward with Streetcar – Jeramey Jannene – November 18th, 2014
- Who Will Be Streetcar Operator – Michael Horne – May 8th, 2014
- A Streetcar Named Cooperation? – Dave Reid – April 27th, 2014
- How a Streetcar Spurs Development – Angie Schmitt – November 3rd, 2013
- Streetcar Social – Michael Horne – September 12th, 2013
- Mayor Says Streetcar is a “Trojan Horse” – Michael Horne – April 17th, 2013
- Whoops, We Changed Our Mind – Dave Reid – September 27th, 2012
- Battle of the Bobs: Donovan vs Bauman Streetcar Press Conference – Jeramey Jannene – May 18th, 2012
- Important Hoan Bridge and Milwaukee Streetcar Meetings This Week – Dave Reid – November 14th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Passes Common Council – Jeramey Jannene – July 26th, 2011
- Keep the Milwaukee Streetcar Moving Forward – Jeramey Jannene – July 8th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar at Apex – Jeramey Jannene – June 16th, 2011
- Milwaukee Streetcar Takes Key Step Forward – Jeramey Jannene – May 6th, 2010
- Milwaukee Streetcar Meeting This Thursday – Jeramey Jannene – October 5th, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Routes Unveiled by Mayor Barrett – Jeramey Jannene – September 21st, 2009
- Milwaukee Streetcar Round-Up – Jeramey Jannene – April 19th, 2009
- Vote for your Favorite Milwaukee Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 25th, 2009
- Design Your Own Streetcar Route – Jeramey Jannene – March 23rd, 2009
- Streetcars Coming to Milwaukee – Dave Reid – March 14th, 2009