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Barras: D.C.'s initiative mess

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

The admission was stunning. A D.C. Board of Elections lawyer said its staff had used a "confusing methodology" to evaluate qualifying petitions submitted by a citizens group hoping to get an initiative banning all corporate contributions on the November general election ballot.

The Washington Examiner's Alan Blinder reported that Terri Stroud acknowledged "inconsistencies. Every person who reviewed [them] had a different way of noting whether a petition was correct or incorrect."

"This raises serious concerns about the process," said Bryan Weaver, a co-founder of D.C. Public Trust, which has been fighting with the BOE, after it ruled the group failed to meet the threshold of 23,298 to get Initiative 70 on the ballot.

Stroud exposed staff incompetence. Someone should get fired.

Weaver had argued the BOE staff miscounted. The agency's general counsel, Kenneth McGhie, insisted everything was done properly and that D.C. Public Trust just didn't "understand the board's methodology."

Apparently the staff didn't either.

Throughout the scrimmage, the citizens group has been burdened: It had to pay $205 to receive duplicates of its own petitions; the copies it received were in black and white -- although BOE staff notations had been made in color.

See what I mean about incompetence?

Then, without any other recourse, D.C. Public Trust had to file a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court hoping to overturn the BOE's decision. This week, Judge Laura Cordero gave initiative proponents until Oct. 2 to conduct a line-by-line review of the BOE's evaluation of signatures.

"There's a reason why there have been only 70 [citizen] attempts at putting something on the ballot," said Weaver.

D.C. Public Trust members are expected to meet Friday to determine the group's next step: It could continue the process or it could decide to start the signature collection anew.

Confession time: I don't support Initiative 70. It won't cure what ails the District's political system. Electing individuals with integrity and a singularly focused commitment to serving the public is the ultimate antidote.

But the unfairness and illogical nature of the city's election laws can't be ignored. Consider, for example, that citizens who want to enact a new law, through an initiative, must secure more than 23,000 signatures citywide to get the issue on the ballot. Meanwhile, an individual running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council needs fewer than 4,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

That candidate, if elected, would have authority over the District's $10 billion budget and could affect numerous public policy issues that would have an impact on the quality of life for the city's more than 600,000 residents. Yet, the ballot threshold is lower for a candidate than for an initiative.

That is absolute madness.

When the council returns from summer recess, it should move swiftly, through emergency legislation, to rectify the inequality inherent in the current law.

Meanwhile, the BOE could acknowledge its staff may have made mistakes and reverse its ruling, permitting Initiative 70 to appear on the November ballot. That seems the only fair course of action.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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