Government, Latest News, Morgantown Council, Star City Council, West Virginia Legislature, Westover Council

House committee approves bill allowing city residents to petition to overturn city ordinance

MORGANTOWN — A House committee has resurrected a bill that would allow a handful of city voters to petition for an election to overturn a city ordinance.

The Political Subdivisions Committee approved HB 2244 in a divided voice vote.

The original version said, “Any city shall, upon presentation of a petition bearing the signatures, written in their own handwriting, of not less than 15 percent of the votes in the last general election, hold a special municipal election to submit to the qualified voters of such city the question of a recall of any ordinance or city code provision previously enacted by the governance of the municipality.”

Opponents pointed out the many areas of confusion in the bill and a committee amendment repaired one of them: It calls the vote a referendum and ties it to the next municipal or primary or general election.

But that left opponents unsatisfied, given the remaining vague phrasing:

  • It doesn’t specify if the 15% applies specifically to those who voted in the prior general election or just 15% of the number, allowing anyone dissatisfied with the ordinance to sign the petition whether they previously voted or not, or even registered to vote.
  • It doesn’t make clear whether “general election” means a November election to choose a president, members of Congress and so on, or if it means the most-recent municipal election. Committee counsel speculated it means the last municipal election.
  • It specifies no time limits. Responding to questions, counsel said residents could petition to recall not just new ordinances but ordinances in place for years.
  • It could apply to city bond ordinances, affecting city commitments to bond issues. Asked what would happen in that instance, counsel said, “I’m sure there’d be a whole lot of unhappy bond holders and other people.”

This committee passed a similar bill in 2022, but it died in House Judiciary without seeing an agenda.

Andrew Schneider, with Fairness West Virginia, warned about other potential problems. He said 18 cities have non-discrimination ordinances and this bill, with its low signature threshold, could subject those ordinances to potential recall by “fringe elements.”

Despite the amendment to clarify the voting dates, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, said, “I still have significant concerns about this bill.”

There are no similar measures for state or county laws, he said. “This is specifically an attack on cities.” It comes from people with a misunderstanding of and lack of appreciation for cities.

“Cities need to be able to take care of their business and do what’s right and be held accountable to their voters through elections.”

He said only 98 people voted in the most-recent Star City election, meaning a petition would need only 15 signatures.

Delegate John Williams, also D-Monongalia, said he appreciates the effort to democratize the city lawmaking process. But the low signature threshold subjects residents to the “tyranny of the minority.”

Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam and a bill co-sponsor, said that even if a bond issue was subject to petition, he doesn’t think 51% of the voters would put the city in financial jeopardy. Also, there’s a difference between general obligation bonds and revenue bonds, and the city would not be liable if the voter chose to do away with a revenue bond.

Like last year’s bill, this one goes next to Judiciary.

TWEET David Beard @dbeardtdp