If Wichita’s last ballot measure was as clear as mud, the next one will be as clear as a glass of drinking water.
The upcoming initiative on whether to fluoridate the city’s drinking water shouldn’t give voters headaches figuring out what they’re voting for, unlike the Feb. 28 special election ballot on tax subsidies for the downtown Ambassador Hotel.
The state Senate has appointed a committee to work on a way to avoid incomprehensible ballot measures in the future. But that could be complicated because half the Senate Republicans on the committee —including the appointed chairwoman — are leaving the Legislature.
Although both the hotel and fluoridation ballot measures resulted from citizen petition drives, the difference is in the way that the two measures came to be on the ballot, said Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf.
In the hotel vote, petitioners were challenging a City Charter ordinance that the City Council had already passed – and the state Constitution is explicit in how such ballot measures have to be worded, Rebenstorf said.
In contrast, the fluoridation measure was brought to the council by residents who want to put it in the municipal code, which means the ballot wording is not dictated by the Constitution.
“The attorney that drafted the ordinance, he just drafted it real simple,” Rebenstorf said. “He did a good job.”
The fluoridation measure, set to appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot reads:
Shall Section 17.12.340 of the code of the city of Wichita be adopted which provides:
(1) The City of Wichita’s Director of Public Works & Utilities is authorized and directed to fluoridate the City of Wichita’s public drinking water supply to the optimal levels beneficial to reduce tooth decay and promote good oral health as recommended by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and is thereafter responsible for the fluoridation of that public drinking water supply.
(2) Upon the direction of the Director of Public Works & Utilities, the Wichita Water Department is authorized and directed to install, operate, and maintain the equipment necessary to introduce fluoride compound sufficient to raise the fluoride concentration in the public drinking water supply to the optimal levels as set forth in the previous paragraph.
A “yes” vote is clearly in favor of putting fluoride in the water, a “no” vote is clearly against it.
Although Wichita supplies water to surrounding communities, only registered voters in Wichita will be allowed to vote on the issue.
The wording on the fluoride question is a far cry from the Ambassador Hotel subsidy question, where voters were asked to decide:
“Shall Charter Ordinance 216 entitled: “A charter ordinance amending and repealing Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 213, of the city of Wichita, Kansas, which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 183 of the city of Wichita which amended and repealed Section 1 of Charter Ordinance No. 174 of the city of Wichita, Kansas, pertaining to the application of revenues from the transient guest tax” take effect?”
That dense legalese prompted some lawmakers to try to look for a way to avoid ballot questions that can only be interpreted with a lawyer and/or a well-stocked library of past and present city codes.
Rather than try to change the Constitution — a complicated process requiring a vote of the electorate — legislators have focused on giving voters additional information, which they believe they can do by a simple statute.
In the waning days of this year’s legislative session, the House approved a measure to allow local election officials to provide voters with neutral “explainers” telling them what they’re voting on.
Under the House plan, local election officials could ask the county or district attorney to draft an explainer. It would then be reviewed by the secretary of state, or in some cases the attorney general, to ensure neutrality.
The explainer would be included with absentee ballots and posted at polling places.
But the plan was amended to another bill that didn’t make it through the Senate.
Leaders of both houses agreed to appoint an interim committee to give the idea further study before the next legislative session begins in January.
Interim committees don’t take direct action, but ordinarily submit recommendations when the Legislature reconvenes.
But two of the four senators on the Special Election Committee won’t be senators after the start of the next session, leaving it unclear who, if anyone, will champion the committee’s recommendations in the Senate.
The chairwoman, Terrie Huntington, R-Fairway, decided not to seek re-election and committee member Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, lost his seat in the primary.
The two remaining Republican senators on the panel, Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, and Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, survived conservative attempts to unseat them, but are associated with the moderate Republican Senate faction that was decisively stripped of political power in the primary election.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, who makes the appointments to interim committees, also lost his seat in the primary.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley appointed Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, as the lone Democratic senator on the panel.
Hensley said he thinks the committee can still get some significant work done. Huntington and Brungardt retain their seats until the session starts in January and can still participate on the committee.
And while the House has yet to appoint its members, Hensley said he thinks that most of the representatives will be coming back.
“Out of the 13 to 15 members on it, I’d say most will be legislators” after January, he said.
Hensley said he supports the idea of providing clearer ballot language.
“I think it’s important for voters to understand what they’re going to vote on when they go to the polls,” he said.
McGinn said she hasn’t been informed of any pending meetings of the interim committee or exactly what they’re going to discuss.
She also said she’s on somewhat unfamiliar ground because she doesn’t serve on the regular Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, which usually handles such matters.
McGinn said when the committee does meet, she wants more information on how ballot explainers would be written to ensure that they don’t favor one side or the other.
She added that there’s a lot of uncertainty with all the changes that will be coming to the Senate and much depends on who’s selected to lead the chamber.
“Everything’s going to be new and different, so we’re all waiting to see,” she said. “You would hope that whoever ends up being the chair would want to continue discussing the issues (from this year’s session) that got snagged up.”