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In our opinion: Fighting City Hall

Published: Saturday, March 2 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Senate Bill 66 is sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, acting on behalf of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which believes the existing referendum law is complicated and not consistent in its requirements for signatures on initiative petitions.

Terry Gilliam, Associated Press

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A proposed Senate bill that would effectively make it harder for certain citizen initiative referenda to get on the ballot might clean up some technical problems with the current law, but in the big picture it looks a lot like a solution in search of a problem.

Unless, of course, you believe granting citizens a reasonable opportunity to directly challenge and overturn the actions of their local governments is a problem.

Senate Bill 66 is sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, acting on behalf of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, which believes the existing referendum law is complicated and not consistent in its requirements for signatures on initiative petitions.

The law currently requires varying thresholds for petition signatures, depending on the urban or rural nature of the jurisdiction involved. The proposed bill would more or less equalize the requirements, but at the same time, it also happens to greatly increase the number of signatures necessary for a petition to be successful in the most populous areas. In one version of the bill, for example, Salt Lake County petition thresholds would increase from 10 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the most recent presidential election, to 20 percent.

Also, each petition would have to collect this percentage of signatures in each voting precinct of the affected jurisdiction.

Opponents of the measure, chiefly public interest groups and community organizations, say doubling the threshold puts an onerous burden on petition organizers. Supporters of the bill counter with the argument that it would ensure a "more informed vote" on the issues presented by petition drives, and that the requirement for signatures from each precinct ensure that someone from one side of town can't put something on the ballot that doesn't have broad support.

All rhetoric removed, the bill is visibly being pushed by pro-development and property rights interests who wish to hamstring grass-roots opposition to things like zoning ordinances and land-use changes, which a significant number of residents in an effected community may not like.

If Utah were suffering from a surfeit of frivolous petition campaigns, that would be one thing. But even under the current law, a referendum drive is a tough task, and examples of successful petitions that result in successful referenda overturning local legislative action are few and far between. One fairly high-profile exception occurred in November, when Highland residents voted to overturn a city decision to allow retail shopping on Sundays. That decision undoubtedly cost the city potential tax revenues and may have thwarted the plans of some developers.

It makes sense that legislative bodies don't naturally cozy up to laws that allow citizens to challenge the work of legislative bodies. But the referendum mechanisms are in place under a constitutional halo that guarantees citizens the right to petition their government against actions they find adverse to their interests.

SB66 as it is currently drafted is adverse to the interests of government accountability. The bill includes worthwhile changes that would clarify tenets of the statute and result in a more consistent application of the law. But the fact that it also raises the bar for a petition drive in certain key jurisdictions gives rise to suspicions over an ulterior motive.

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