Advice for City Councilors On Prop 2 1/2 Override Ballot

With the approach of the April referendum on a Cambridge override of Proposition 2 1/2, members of the city council have voiced concern that the linguistic complexity of the proposal may confuse voters and thus decrease potential support.

The real issue behind the referendum is not complex: voters must approve one of two referendum questions to alleviate further Prop 2 1/2 budget cuts this year.

The first question, requiring a simple majority for passage will ask the city voters to okay an additional $5.1 million in property tax assessments, reducing the annual Prop 2 1/2 cut by one-half.

The second question, requiring a two-thirds majority, would allow the city to collect an extra #10.2 million, completely overriding the fiscal 1983 Prop 2 1/2 cuts.

Approval of the second question "will essentially not raise anybody's taxes," according to City Manager Robert Healy, because it would merely maintain the current $57 million level of city services.

At last week's city council meeting, members reviewed a preliminary set of instructions for voters in the referendum and several councilors expressed dissatisfaction with what they called vague and confusing language in the guidelines. The council decided to ask election commissioners to continue working on the instructions.

The real issues in the referendum could be "unmercifully twisted by legislative language," Councilor David Wylie said yesterday, adding that many city voters could be mislead.

In their discussions last week, council members raised the possibility of sample testing voter instructions on a small group of citizens or hiring expert legal and psychological consultants.

The councilors could probably save some badly needed city funds by reading a relevant report published in the Columbia Law Review in 1979.

The article by R. P. and V.R. Charrow, "Making Legal Language Understandable," describes a reliable method for lawyers and bureaucrats to improve comprehension of legislative language by non-lawyers.

Here are a few of the report's main suggestions:

* Use the active tense instead of the passive.

* Do not use many negatives in one sentence.

* Do not create vagueness by beginning prepositional phrases with "as to."

* Do not change verbs to nouns, and thus eliminate the true subject of the sentence. Some common verb-to-noun endings that should be avoided are: ing, -tion, -al. For example, use "we removed" instead of "the removal of."

* Use everyday words instead of terms used commonly among lawyers.

* Do not drop relative pronouns such as that, which, and who; also do not eliminate the necessary use of forms of the verb to be.

* Do not use more than one subordinate clause in any sentence.