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Councilman's anonymous letter lays groundwork for repeal of no Sunday shopping in Highland

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 2:28 p.m. MDT

The Highland City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to do away with an ordinance on the books since 2000 that requires most businesses to be closed on Sundays. But city officials also decided to put the issue on the November ballot so residents can decide whether to accept or rescind the decision. (Shutterstock.com) The Highland City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to do away with an ordinance on the books since 2000 that requires most businesses to be closed on Sundays. But city officials also decided to put the issue on the November ballot so residents can decide whether to accept or rescind the decision. (Shutterstock.com)

HIGHLAND — An elected official said he regrets not signing an anonymous letter he sent to city residents citing the city's Sunday store closure laws as "a major reason why new enterprises locate immediately outside the border of Highland."

But he said the letter, which also detailed the city's financial challenges, brought "broader participation" to a hearing this week to decide the controversial issue.

The City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday to do away with an ordinance on the books since 2000 that requires most businesses to be closed on Sundays. But city officials also decided to put the issue on the November ballot so residents can decide whether to accept or rescind the decision.

City Councilman Scott Smith made the proposal — and wrote the letter mailed throughout the city — that points to economic needs and suggests the city's residents be able to exercise the moral agency to decide when they shop.

"My opinion is we need to be more business friendly. We need to generate more sales tax revenue. By doing so, we take pressure off raising property taxes," Smith said. But if a majority of residents decide they'd rather keep stores closed on Sundays and cover the city's budget in another way, he said he'd support that decision.

"That's why we put it to a public vote."

Smith, a family practice doctor, said his offices are closed on Sunday and he doesn't shop on Sunday. But those who do shop on Sunday often go just outside the city's borders to find an open store, moving tax revenues outside the city.

"I think people should use their agency to choose," he said.

Fellow City Councilman Tom Butler helped with editing and City Councilman Tim Irwin knew about the letter. Smith said he showed a draft to staff at City Hall for fact checking. Yet Smith claims the city had no official role in writing or mailing the letter.

He said he paid the cost of printing and mailing the letter. But it became an issue Tuesday when he revealed to those attending the meeting that he wrote and distributed the letter, claiming he did so as a private citizen.

He said his decision to send the letter without a signature was influenced by threats Planning Commission Chairman Chris Kemp received over the same issue two weeks earlier. "It's such an emotional thing," Smith said. "I just didn't want that. I was kind of apprehensive."

He said he did receive several phone calls and emails concerning the matter.

"I got a call from a woman who said if I voted to support the change, that she would make sure that we got ours. I said 'Could you expand on that?' She just said "We'll make sure you get yours.' "

Smith said the letter was designed to get broader participation in the decision-making process. He said he was concerned that all of the discussion about the proposal was taking place in LDS Church circles, and that a broader cross section of the city needed to be involved in the blue-law debate.

"I'm an active member of the (LDS) Church, but I thought people were inappropriately using the organization of the church to promote one particular viewpoint."

Butler said on Thursday the letter accomplished that, because people speaking for and against the proposal were more evenly split compared to public discussion before Tuesday's hearing.

"If Scott had not sent out that letter the hearing would have been 90-10 or 95-5" in favor of keeping the current Sunday closure ordinance in place.

Butler said he did not know Smith was going to send the letter anonymously. "But that doesn't matter to me," he said.

Highland Mayor Lynn V. Ritchie said he believes any letter should be signed, and that the unsigned approach damages promises of transparency.

City Councilman Brian Braithwaite, who said he supports keeping the current closure ordinance in place, called the absence of a signature on the letter "unfortunate."

"I see it influencing people both ways, " Braithwaite said. "There's plenty of time between now and the election to straighten that out," he said. "This will absolutely be a big discussion between now and the election."

Butler said one problem he sees with the current closure ordinance is that it is not consistent. Grocery stores must close but convenience stores and the restaurants can be open. Patrons at the Alpine Country Club can golf and get a full meal, with liquor, "But you can't buy a pack of diapers at the grocery store."

Residents polled outside a Highland grocery store on Thursday generally supported the current closure ordinance, though not all said they would vote against the change in November.

"I personally probably wouldn't be participating in purchasing on Sundays," said Toby Norton, who has lived in Highland about 10 years. "If that's what the community wants and supports, that's their decision," he added, saying he was undecided about how he would vote in November.

Homeowner Ben Austin said he favors Sunday closures and would pay higher property taxes to keep the community the way it is. He said he favors more work to find new revenue sources in addition to property taxes to keep the city's budget afloat.

Robin Austin moved to Highland two years ago and supports the current closures. "I think a lot of the people who moved here moved here for the values that the town has."

Highland resident Howard Bangerter, president of the Highland East Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended Tuesday's hearing. "We have members of the church that are on both sides of that issue," he said. "I was just pleased to see there was a healthy dialogue, democracy at work, and the system that played out according to our system of government."

"We recognize that people have agency to feel how they feel on both sides. We would not try to dictate to anybody how they should vote. Highland has been a great place to raise a family. We feel like it will continue to be a great place to raise a family," Bangerter said.

Smith said most of the criticism on the issue "has been attacking the messenger, not the message." He said if he decides to write a city-wide letter again, "I'll make sure my name's there in bold type."

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com

Twitter: SteveFidel

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