Citizen initiative referendums are a serious matter guaranteed in the last sentence of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But along with the people’s right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” comes specific legal requirements to initiate or repeal legislation.
For many of us here in Tooele County, those requirements became better known last week.
As reported in last Thursday’s edition, Tooele County Clerk/Auditor Marilyn Gillette had to make a tough choice: As the county’s top election official, she had to inform sponsors of a citizen referendum that too many petition signatures were not obtained according to state law.
The citizen referendum sought to repeal a zone change, approved by the Tooele County Commission on May 15, that would allow high-density development on 5.38 acres adjacent to Country Club and Gateway drives in Stansbury Park. Specifically, the zone change is from commercial shopping and single-family residential to R-M-15, which allows for high-density development up to 15 housing units per acre.
Opponents of the zone change claimed that Stansbury Park has limited commercial property and high-density dwellings would be out of character for the location. They also expressed concern that developing the property would hinder public access to the Mill Pond.
But Stansbury resident Derald Anderson, who sought the zone change, says his proposed development that initially called for 60-74 affordable apartments and townhomes on the property is consistent with the county’s General Plan. That plan, according to Anderson, calls for diversity in housing with higher density near existing resources as the county’s population grows.
But opponents disagreed and pressed forward to get enough petition signatures to place a repeal referendum on the county’s General Election ballot in November. Nearly 2,800 valid signatures were obtained with 2,749 valid signatures of registered voters required for certification.
Gillette reviewed the signatures and determined that one packet of signatures had to be withdrawn because it did not have a required signature on the verification statement. Despite the elimination of one packet of 50 signatures, there were still enough to get the referendum on the ballot.
But then Anderson contacted Gillette and claimed he had proof that not all of the petition signature verifiers had personally witnessed citizens sign the petition as required by state code. That code stipulates it is a class A misdemeanor for a person (verifier) to sign a packet’s verification statement if they did not witness every signature signed in that packet. State code also mandates that the county clerk cannot certify a signature in a referendum packet if the signature was not witnessed and verified as specified in state code.
Tooele County Attorney Scott Broadhead was notified of Anderson’s claims, and Tooele County Sheriff Paul Wimmer conducted an investigation. In a legal opinion on the investigation, Broadhead wrote, it was determined “no fewer than 20 signatures, and possibly as many as 27, were not properly witnessed and verified.”
He also wrote enough improperly verified signatures were found during the investigation to declare the referendum signatures to be insufficient. In a written statement to petition sponsors, Gillette said, “Concerned citizens put so much into this petition gathering. It is with heavy heart that I am unable to certify the petition, however. When I was sworn into office I took an oath to support, obey, and defend the law and discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.”
It is regrettable that this citizen referendum initiative won’t make it on this fall’s ballot. Petition sponsors did their best, and county officials responded to a claim that could not be ignored. What needs to be done next is to make sure this doesn’t occur again. Gillette says she will do everything in her power to help referendum sponsors better understand the legal requirements of signature collection. But she stressed that if signature verifiers do not follow state code, this could happen again.
It is hoped that effort will prove successful, for every citizen referendum that obtains enough required signatures is an enormous task that deserves a solution by voters. Our nation’s founding fathers saw it that way and made sure it was included in the First Amendment.