Wisconsin’s direct-legislation law is a safeguard against political corruption and the institutions that protect entrenched politicians. I, for one, am glad that I live in a state that recognizes that citizens have a right to make local laws in their own interest even if it is not possible to throw the bums out when the Old Boys Network runs local government.
In 2000, a small group of citizens in Mount Horeb challenged the Village Board under the 1911 direct-legislation law. The law gives citizens the basic democratic right to enact laws that their local government refuses to authorize. It provides that citizens can raise a petition requesting the enactment of a specifically stated ordinance and, if those citizens gather a sufficient number of valid signatures, that petition can be presented to the local government. The law further stipulates that, upon presentation of such a petition, the local government must either enact the ordinance or put it to a referendum at the next general election.
A Wisconsin Supreme Court case originated with the decision of the Mount Horeb Village Board to locate the new public library building on the edge of the municipality rather than downtown, as a majority of the village’s residents desired. Seeking a means by which we could ensure that the Village Board would not defy popular sentiment on future major building projects, a group of us calling ourselves Community Alert turned to direct legislation for a remedy. We authored and circulated a formal petition proposing an ordinance that required any building project costing $1 million dollars or more to be presented to the public in the form of a referendum.
No action taken
The requisite number of signatures was gathered and certified, and the petition was formally presented to the Village Board. But instead of either enacting the legislation or placing it on the ballot as required by the law, the board chose to take no action at all. As a result, Community Alert was forced to take the Village Board to court.
The county court sided with the Village Board, so Community Alert appealed.
The state appeals court unanimously overturned the county court’s decision. At that point, the Village Board appealed to the state Supreme Court. Citing James Madison on the necessity of limitations on governmental power, the Supreme Court, by a 4-3 margin, affirmed the court of appeals decision. Citizens in municipalities throughout the state can now trust that their representatives can be held accountable, not only at the polls but also between elections.
Of course, this sounds perfectly reasonable if what we call government “of the people, by the people and for the people” has any meaning. Nonetheless, our opposition was strong and unified. Municipal governments statewide were reluctant to allow citizens to “interfere” with their decisions, and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities was a staunch ally of the Mount Horeb board in its amicus brief to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Wisconsin State Journal opined against us on their news and editorial pages.
In my mind, my fellow Mount Horeb citizens and I were merely asserting our fundamental right in a democracy to challenge our local representatives. What could be more democratic than that?
Community Alert’s opponents say that citizens have the opportunity to have their voices heard when they go to the voting booth and do not need another means of asserting themselves. The reality is that incumbents in small communities have huge advantages at the local level to get re-elected in spite of an occasionally unpopular decision.
The Supreme Court decision forces the Mount Horeb Village Board to obey the law. Rather than adopt the ordinance outright, the board has chosen to put Community Alert’s referendum request to the voters in the 2004 spring general election. Apparently, the board still hopes to defeat the right of citizens to have a voice.
We will organize to pass the referendum and will work hard to try to elect better board members, too. In the meantime, there is still democracy.
Community Alert members Judy Patenaude, John Stowe and Liz Schmidt contributed to this article, which first appeared on wispolitics.com.