The Utah Supreme Court has rejected a petition from a coalition of South Jordan residents who sought to overturn a city decision preventing them from circulating a referendum petition.
In a decision handed down Tuesday morning, justices ruled 4-0 that the group calling itself SOS (Save Open Space) failed to present a completed petition to the city within the 35-day time limit specified by state law.The high court did not rule on other issues presented in the case, however, including the decision of the City Council to deny the petition request on the grounds state law prohibits referenda on local zoning matters.
SOS attempted to circulate a referendum that would have let South Jordan voters approve or disapprove of a Dec. 16, 1997, ordinance that provided a 120-day zoning extension for the controversial RiverPark Office com-plex.
The council gave final approval April 26 to a conditional use permit and a conceptual site plan for the project, clearing the way for the construction of a multimillion dollar office complex west of the Jordan River and south of 10600 South.
The high court decision was a major setback for SOS organizers, who have been hoping the high court would compel the city to allow a referendum drive - at least temporarily halting the development pending a public vote.
Janalee Tobias, an SOS founder, said Tuesday she is disappointed by the decision but is determined to continue her battle against RiverPark developers.
"The citizens have suffered yet another defeat trying to bring about change in their communities," she said, maintaining this ruling will affect future referenda because having to gather signatures in 35 days is an "impossible task.
"The Supreme Court has ruled against the citizens," she added. "There's no hope."
A request for the city to prepare referendum petitions for circulation was submitted to the city on Jan. 20, 35 calendar days after the council granted the ordinance extension.
City Manager David Millheim did not issue the petitions but referred the matter to the city's attorney for an opinion, which was provided about a week later.
SOS attorney John D. O'Connell had argued the 35 days outlined in the state statute on initiatives and referenda only referred to the time limit for asking the city to prepare a referendum petition for circulation.
But in the unanimous decision, Chief Justice Richard Howe said state law is clear that the 35 days is the limit for submitting completed petitions to the city for verification of names.
"We acknowledge the statutory timetable is extremely short," Howe wrote. "Sponsors of referendum petitions must move promptly to gather the required number of signatures in 35 days after the passage of the ordinance."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Michael Zimmerman was critical of the decision by Millheim, who is also the city recorder, to delay the request to prepare petitions while he awaited a legal ruling.
"Any such determination is inappropriate until after the referendum petition has been completed and returned," he wrote. " . . . It is already difficult to succeed in the use of the referendum process due to the shortness of the statutory timetable.
"We should not allow unauthorized delays by city administrators, those most likely to hope a referendum would fail, to make this process even more difficult," Zimmerman noted.
He also disagreed with the city's argument the ordinance could not be challenged by referendum because it is only a time extension of an earlier decision.
Zimmerman said the ordinance extending the rezoning constituted a separate decision, and could be considered challengable on that ground.