Here's the story as brief as I can tell it.
A Janesville resident, Billy McCoy, started a petition drive to have two questions (separate petitions) for the city council to take action on OR alternately have placed on the November ballot in the form of binding referenda for city voters to decide. The petition's legal foundation is supported by Wisconsin State Statute 9.20 on Direct Legislation.
The first petition asks the city council to overturn a previous council decision and stop (or delay) construction of a new $9M central fire station. Construction has not yet begun.
Typical of the subject matter, there are differing legal opinions as to whether direct legislation can overturn current legislation. However, there is precedent for direct legislation to effectively change the course of a building proposal prior to the start of construction.
A proposed ordinance, initiated by a group of citizens, to require a village to hold a binding referendum prior to the start of construction on any new village building project requiring a capital expenditure of $1 million or more was an appropriate subject of direct legislation. Mount Horeb Community Alert v. Village Board of Mt. Horeb, 2003 WI 100, 263 Wis. 2d 544, 665 N.W.2d 229, 01-2217.
The second petition would require the city to hold a public binding referendum for capital projects exceeding $2 million in cost.
McCoy did all the necessary leg work, dotted the i's and crossed all the t's to win more than 3,500 signatures in fulfilling the requirements of the petitions to have its day in front of the council.
On Monday, the Janesville city council had several options at their disposal to handle his petitions. They could choose to adopt one or the other referendum. Adopt both referenda. Refer one or both referenda to the voters for a ballot on an upcoming election. OR take no action. Unfortunately, they chose to take no action on either petition. In short, they basically ignored both petitions as if they did not exist.
In addition, they offered no solutions or alternatives to the questions being presented by the petitions.
Even though in my opinion, their decision to do nothing with the petitions was completely expected, I couldn't get over some of the arrogance and scold-like advisories a couple of the council members delivered in defence of their position. Their main theme was, "if you don't like the way things are going, run for office yourself and make the changes you want." And, "We're not a democracy. The people elected us to make the hard decisions."
Believe it or not, those remarks came shortly after the council found some democracy for themselves when they approved their own referendum for November, asking voters to tax hike themselves $1.2 million a year for ten years to replace lost state aid revenue for local road repair. In complete contradiction to their reasoning opposing the petitions, the council ran away from the decision to raise the city's wheel tax for road repairs and instead passed off that decision to the voters to bury the fee under property tax bills. So much for hard decisions.
In a bizarre moment, council member Doug Marklein recited a few lines from Howard Beale's depressing rant from the movie, Network. He then stated that not much has changed over the years since. Later on in the discussion, Marklein tells the petitioners that they should shift their anger towards Madison.
Sadly, the Janesville city council epitomize everything that is wrong in government today. Disconnected, condescending, polarizing, negative and hostile to the wishes of the regular folks on Main Street, there’s little more I can say to describe their general attitude last night without getting heated.
On the other hand, the leader of the petitions, Billy McCoy, issued zero threats, zero ultimatums. He was respectful but direct in asking the council to take action at the request of 3,500-plus residents who signed each petition. They not only refused, ...they snubbed their noses at them.
One of the more amazing aspects of McCoy’s petition drive was that he succeeded with almost zero Internet or social media presence. He does not blog, Facebook or Twitter and although only a few of the petition signers showed up to speak at this council meeting, the petitions and McCoy’s solid performance speaks for itself. It should also be noted that the Janesville Gazette marginalized McCoy's messaging and editorialized in opposition to both petitions.
But to be ignored is a serious loss for the signers of the petitions and I'm also not certain if these petitions automatically go to referendum in November. You can expect updates from me on that situation and more on the city's road tax hike referendum.
All I can say at this juncture to the folks who signed those petitions: Don't get mad ...GET ORGANIZED!
NOTE: You can view key remarks from several council members on this subject here. It begins at the 3:36:00 mark and runs up to 3:56:00. .