The power of citizens to halt unpopular city decisions may be amplified with a bill temporarily tabled by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
HB73, sponsored by Rep. David Hogue, R-Riverton, would prohibit city laws from going into effect until after a citizen referendum is complete. Currently, contested laws are implemented even if residents are gathering signatures for a referendum or if the item is already up for a vote.
"We need to clarify this for the citizens of the state of Utah," Hogue told committee members. "A referendum allows the people to be heard. They have a constitutional right to be heard and have a vote taken."
That right is compromised, Hogue said, when laws are allowed to move forward before citizens have their say. Developers are also put at risk, he said, because they go ahead with plans even though a referendum could negate the law and force the development to be removed.
That dilemma has confronted Sandy residents as they tried to put a controversial zone change on the city's gravel pit to a citizen vote. While petitioners scurried to gather signatures, the opposed Boyer big-box development moved forward uncontested.
Opponents of the development even filed a lawsuit against the city asking the court to halt development on the gravel pit until the referendum was resolved. Otherwise, the suit claimed, construction on the project could be completed by the time a referendum made it on the ballot in November.
"We think they can't just keep moving along developing when a referendum is eminent," resident Cynthia Long said.
But Rep. Susan Lawrence questioned if putting a hold on city decisions until after a referendum puts too much power in the hands of citizens. Under state law, the referendum process is started with only five voters signing a petition to the city. Petitioners then have 45 days to collect enough signatures to put the item on the ballot.
"It just seems like you've got a lot of power invested in five people who aren't elected or accountable to the people," she said.
Lawrence also said she is worried that halting city decisions could leave developers in the lurch for at least 45 days and possibly several years as a referendum process played out.
"Developers purchase land and have got an investment in it. He's got an investment in time and resources. Is he just to sit there and wait?" she said.
But Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, acknowledged a change has to be made because the state Constitution says legislative decisions do not take effect until after a referendum, while state statute allows a law to be applied at the same time citizens are trying to repeal it.
Either the Legislature needs to approve a resolution to change the state Constitution, or it will have to accept Hogue's bill to bring state law in line, he said. The committee decided that to choose either option will take more research and a closer look at the constitutional language.
Chris Kyler, CEO of Utah Realtors Association, said he supports changing the constitution and opposes Hogue's bill because allowing citizens to halt development is too great a risk.
"Many projects can't be floated for 45 days and certainly not for two years," he said. "We need to know that once a legislative body has spoken and we're free to act on the development."Hogue is also backing a bill requiring governments to hold a special election for referendums on land use laws to "timely address" the issue for developers and citizens. That bill, HB199, will be heard today by the House Government Operations Committee.