Supreme Court affirms power of initiatives
December 19, 2002
Congratulations to the Nevada Supreme Court for a well-reasoned opinion on the Douglas County growth-cap issue, which helps clarify the power of the public to bring initiatives to a vote.
While the growth cap limiting building permits in Douglas to 280 a year still can be challenged in court, the Supreme Court made a couple of key findings that strengthen the initiative process — the ability of ordinary citizens to bring matters to a public vote.
One of the findings is that a general election provides an adequate forum for public discussion of zoning policies. An initiative can’t be struck down simply because the people affected didn’t go through the formal public-hearing process usually required for zoning changes.
“The filing and circulation of an initiative petition, and the adversary nature of a political campaign, provide ample opportunity for all viewpoints to be heard,” the justices wrote.
More important for all initiatives, however, is the court’s affirmation that the public has equal powers to enact legislation through a popular vote as does the government.
“In other words, if a county board of commissioners or city council can enact zoning legislation, the county and city voters can do the same by initiative. This interpretation truly gives the voters the
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same legislative authority as the local governing body,” the court ruled.
That is the fundamental basis for allowing the Douglas County growth-cap vote to stand:
“We conclude that the sustainable growth measure is legislation. The Douglas County Master Plan anticipated a future limitation on growth, but it did not establish one. The initiative’s proponents evidently decided that the time was ripe, and chose to change the Master Plan by establishing a general building cap on residential units to regulate growth. This change is policy-driven, and is legislative in character. Executing this new policy will be an administrative matter.”
The dicey matter of what is legislative and what is administrative remains to be decided case by case. The court didn’t go as far as we’d like in broadening the scope of initiative petitions, but we didn’t really expect it in this case.
There was plenty in the decision, however, to reaffirm the people’s right to bring policy issues to a public vote. The Nevada Supreme Court’s ruling on the Douglas growth cap accomplishes what an effective opinion must: It gives clear guidance to anyone drafting an initiative petition in the future.