Sunday, February 19, 2006

Referendum Issues Resurface

One of the proposed Sons of SB170 bills was supposed to deal with the question of having certain land use decisions subject to citizen referendum. There was even a bill in progress under Sen. Tom Hatch's name for this issue.

Stories last week in both the DesNews and the Trib indicated that citizen groups were forming to oppose any change to the citizen referendum process. "We're really worried," said Save Our Communities (Sandy) representative Robyn Bagley. "There's a lot of different ways they can go."

Most of the discussion in the press, and even comments made by Sen. Tom Hatch, revolved around changing the threshold percentage of signatures needed in communities of varying size. In larger communities, to get a referendum petition on the ballot, supporters must collect enough signatures equivalent to 20% of the number of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election in that community. For smaller towns, the standard rises to 35%.

In Riverton, a recent referendum proposal was put forward by meeting the 35% standard -- twice. Dennis Sampson, president of Riverton United, said "It was very, very hard to get enough people. It was nearly impossible to do it the second time." But they did.

Discussion I had heard about the proposed bill for Sen. Hatch, however, was about applying the same standard for taking issues to referendum for cities and counties as exists for the state legislature -- if the measure passes the legislative body by a vote margin of more than two-thirds, it cannot be subject to referendum.

But we may never know (at least not this legislative session) what would have been in the bill -- even Sen. Hatch acknowledged that it is getting late in the legislative session to come forward with a new bill and have it have any hope of making it all the way through the process. Given the citizen groups that would marshall to potentially oppose it, that is about a given.

It's no secret how I feel generally about land use decisions being made by referendum. I have blogged on this topic before. In the give and take world of development approval, it is difficult if not impossible to deal with individual projects on such a basis. There may be more rationale for allowing referendum votes on such broader topics as the general plan for the community, or large-scale rezones. But reviewing and approving individual projects is such a give-and-take of negotiation, how can that be accomplished when it may be subject to citizen referendum?

Two weeks ago, the Bluffdale City disconnection case was heard in Third District Court before judge Anthony Quinn. A lot of factors and issues were brought up and discussed in the hearing, including the role that the referendum by Bluffdale citizens played. Near the end of the hearing, while discussing this issue, Judge Quinn said,

"If you consider the referendum, that is somthing that really cuts both ways. ... "In my analysis of this case, on fairness, predictability and consistency of the process, how can a developer negotiate with, in effect, all the citizens of Bluffdale City?
"When you've got a situation where the political climate is such, and I'm not saying that it's wrong -- I mean I'm in favor of active citizen participation in the process -- but it creates a political climate. And when the political climate is such that all the decisions of the city council are going to be examined and challenged by referedum, how can a developer negotiate with that? The city council and the mayor become, in effect, an agent with no authority. They can say no, but can never say yes, and have it mean anything. Doesn't that affect the process and ultimately the fairness and equity of the situation?"

Cogent words from Judge Quinn. It will be interesting to see how he rules in the Bluffdale disconnection case (the referendum is only a part of all the issues being dealt with there).

I'm sure those citizens in favor of referendum petitions will argue that it is stripping the right of the people away from them to do away with such votes, but the right to referendum is already limited to non-legislative type decisions. These kinds of development approvals may be in the same category.

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