It looks like Tooele County residents won’t get to vote on repealing a rezone of property in Stansbury Park that paves the way for a high-density development.
Tooele County Clerk/Auditor Marilyn Gillette informed referendum sponsors Wednesday that she was unable to certify the referendum on the rezone in Stansbury Park because too many signatures were not verified by the signature gatherer in the manner prescribed by state law.
“Concerned citizens put so much work into this petition gathering,” wrote Gillette to the petition sponsors. “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.”
Referendum sponsors hoped to give voters the opportunity to over turn the Tooele County Commission’s decision to rezone 5.38 acres of property on the southwest corner of Clubhouse Drive and Country Club Drive from commercial shopping and single-family residential to R-M-15. The change allows for high-density development of up to 15 housing units per acre.
State law requires the person who gathers signatures on a referendum packet to sign a verification statement that states that each person whose signature appears in the packet “signed his name in my presence.”
Initially, Gillette found that the referendum sponsors were successful in gathering a total of 2,799 signatures from registered voters, with 2,749 valid signatures required for certification.
Gillette then checked the verification statements for each packet and had to eliminate one packet that had no signature on the verification statement. That left the referendum with 2,755 valid signatures, still enough for the referendum to be certified and placed on the November ballot.
But Gillette was contacted by Derald Anderson, the applicant for the rezone that is the subject of the referendum. Anderson claimed to have proof that not all of the signature verifiers had personally witnessed the signatures in the petition packets that they verified as required by state code.
Gillette informed Tooele County Attorney Scott Broadhead of Anderson’s allegations. Broadhead brought in Tooele County Sheriff Paul Wimmer to conduct an investigation because, according to state code, it is a class A misdemeanor for a person to sign a verification statement on a packet if they did not witness the signatures contained in that packet.
State code also states 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.
“The investigation showed there were more problems than just the verfiers signing for signatures they had not witnessed,” wrote Gillette. “Signers of the petition stated that they had signed individual pages of the petition with persons other than the verifier.”
In a legal opinion prepared for Gillette by Broadhead, after the sheriff’s investigation, Broadhead stated that deputies contacted people whose name appeared on the referendum packets that they knew, either personally or professionally.
In one case an employee at the Tooele County Detention Center was interviewed. The employee stated that he was given a signature page, which he took to work where it was signed by nine jail employees. The employee returned the signature page to the person who gave it to him.
The signature page that bears the signature of the nine jail employees appears in a packet that was verified not by the person who gathered and witnessed the signatures, but by one of the petition sponsors.
In another incident, investigators talked to an individual who took a referendum packet to their gym and obtained five signatures, but the person who witnessed the signatures did not sign the verification statement for those signatures.
A Utah Highway Patrol trooper told deputies that he signed a referendum packet while standing outside a fireworks stand. The person who verified his signature was not present when he signed the packet, according to the trooper.
“With a limited investigation due to time constraints, the investigators determined that no fewer than 20 signatures, and possibly as many as 27 signatures, were not properly witnessed and verified,” wrote Broadhead in his opinion.
In his opinion, Broadhead stated that the improper verification of referendum signatures “was a pattern of behavior and it is likely that further investigation would uncover many more signatures that were improperly witnessed.”
Enough improperly verified signatures were found during the investigation to declare the referendum signatures to be insufficient, according to Broadhead.
“As county officers and members of the executive branch of government, it is our duty to apply the law as it is written,” wrote Broadhead. “The judicial branch of government has the authority to review the statutes and determine whether the verification of signatures is a necessary element of the referendum process.”
If a county clerk determines the number of signatures for a referendum to be insufficient, any one of the referendum sponsors may demand a recount of the signatures to be completed in the presence of a sponsor, according to state law.
State law also allows any voter may apply to the state Supreme Court to compel a county clerk to accept and file a referendum that has been refused by the clerk.
Erin Giles, a referendum petition sponsor, declined to comment on the referendum’s status, pending a consultation with her attorney.