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Utah legislative ethics reformers sue state over initiative petitions

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 4:26 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of a legislative ethics reform initiative filed a lawsuit Monday seeking a court order compelling the state to certify petitions to place the measure on the 2012 election ballot.

Utahns for Ethical Government contends the lieutenant governor's office has dragged its feet for seven months in determining whether the group collected the required number of signatures.

"We've been waiting and waiting and waiting," said Alan Smith, a UEG attorney. "How hard is it for them to count?"

The 24-page complaint filed in 3rd District Court names Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and clerks in the 29 Utah counties.

Bell and UEG disagree over a time provision for gathering the names in the state's initiative petition law.

The group did not solicit enough signatures between August 2009 and an April 15, 2010, deadline to get the initiative on last November's ballot. UEG contends the law allows one year from the time the petition is filed to collect the required signatures, giving them until Aug. 12, 2010, to make the 2012 ballot.

By that date, UEG had about 120,000 signatures, well over the 94,500 required.

Bell's office argues that because the group failed to qualify for the 2010 ballot, it should have started over.

"They interpret the statute differently than we do," said Mark Thomas, state elections director, adding he's looking forward to the court's decision.

Thomas said he's a "little perplexed" about UEG complaining about the signatures not being counted.

"The point is we're two years away" from the 2012 election, he said. "We're working as fast as we can," he said, adding his office promised the count by April 1.

Kim Burningham, UEG chairman, called the delay a "great frustration" and an "affront" to Utahns who signed the petition, which calls for an independent ethics commission and a code of conduct for state legislators.

"Such a delay is inexcusable and is a continuing sign of the deliberate attempt to burden UEG's ability to pursue its initiative as well as its legal options in a timely fashion," he said.

"We're troubled by this process. We think it's wrong and we've decided to move ahead."

In the waning hours of the past legislative session, lawmakers made it more difficult to get citizen initiatives and referendums on the election ballot.

SB165 requires signatures from 10 percent of residents in 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts who voted in the previous presidential election. It became effective upon the Gov. Gary Herbert's signature March 10. The old statute based the number on gubernatorial elections, which tend to attract fewer voters than presidential elections.

The new law also sets April 15 before the next general election as the signature gathering deadline and prohibits electronic signatures.

Bill sponsor Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said during the recent legislative session that although the Utah Constitution allows citizen petitions, it's "appropriate to have some fairly strict and rigorous standards."

The changes, he said, clarify ambiguities that a group is using to pursue its own agenda and for the purposes of litigation.

Dixie Hueffner, UEG communications chairwoman, said legislative and executive branches seem bent on "keeping all power to themselves."

"What is happening to our democracy when elected officials exhibit such scorn for the citizens they are supposed to be serving?" she said.

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com

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