How much respect to city councils owe voter-approved referenda?
Voters in two Central Texas cities overwhelmingly passed propositions earlier this month that would stop citations and arrests for low-level marijuana offenses within city limits. But elected officials in Bell County are pushing back.
On Tuesday, Harker Heights City Council voted to repeal the measure, saying that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana was inconsistent with state law, as marijuana possession remains illegal statewide and federally. The City Council in Killeen agreed to put its decriminalization measure on hold as elected officials there weigh whether to repeal, amend or green light the ordinance that passed on Election Day.
Neither ballot measure legalizes marijuana. Instead, they prevent people from being cited or arrested for having up to 4 ounces of the drug. The propositions also prohibit city police officers from stopping someone because they smelled marijuana.
David Bass, the founder of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, told City Council on Tuesday that the people of Killeen have spoken. Regardless of the legality of marijuana, the ordinance was clear and he said the council should respect voters’ decision.
“What I know is that the people of Killeen voted overwhelmingly for our police to stop arresting people for small amounts of cannabis,” Bass said. “We should listen to the will of the people of Killeen.”
Shirley Fleming, a former Killeen city councilwoman, told the Harker Heights City Council that repealing the ordinance could make residents feel like their vote doesn’t matter.
“If you stomp on this, a lot of people will say, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’” Fleming said. “Let’s respect their vote.”
See here for some background. With all due respect to Ms. Fleming, and speaking as someone who supports these measures and would vote for a similar one if it were to be on my ballot someday, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. All of the city council members here were also elected by the people, and if they believe that the ordinances that were adopted without their input are bad policy, then it’s consistent with their mandate as elected officials to take action as they see fit. I wouldn’t have done it this way – some public hearings would have been a better way to begin – and if I were a dissenting council member I’d have approached it from the perspective of modification rather than repeal. But they can do this, and I don’t see it as necessarily ignoring the will of the people but as different mandates.
Look at it this way: A President gets elected, begins to implement a policy agenda, and then two years later the voters elect a Congressional majority from the opposing party. Both were duly elected with a valid mandate, it’s just that those mandates conflict with each other. This isn’t a perfect analogy – the opposition Congress and the incumbent President were surely campaigning directly against each other, and the new Congress or the existing President may well not reflect a true majority of voters for various reasons – but the idea is the same. The voters may now render a judgment on those city council members in the next election, and that may or may not provide clarity. That’s just the nature of our system.
To be clear, I think the city councils of Killeen and Harker Heights should have started from the position that the voters made a valid statement that they should engage with seriously. They do have the latitude to make changes, and if they want to put themselves on the line they can act in opposition. I can easily imagine scenarios where the voters might approve something unjust, where the moral imperative would be to undo the damage. I can also easily understand the frustration of any voter who worked to pass these referenda only to see their work bulldozed by the same government officials who had acted as the obstacle they sought to overcome. All I’m saying is that it’s more complex than “the voters have spoken”. I’ll try to remember that if it happens here.