The Utah Supreme Court has ordered South Jordan to furnish opponents of the proposed River-Park office complex with official ballot initiative petitions and signature sheets.
A group called SOS - "Save Open Space" - requested the materials on July 16 in a bid to give voters the final say on a zoning ordinance relating to the proposed project.However, the city clerk refused, saying, "The subject matter of the proposed ordinance involves a zoning matter which is inappropriate for the initiative process."
In a 4-to-1 opinion released Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court ruled that state law clearly requires local government clerks to provide initiative sponsors with five copies of the initiative petition and five signature sheets.
Writing for the majority, Justice Michael Zimmerman said, "The stat-ute makes the issuance of an initiative petition an entirely ministerial act, and nothing in the statute authorizes the local clerk to make any independent determination of whether the petition should be issued."
A determination of whether the subject matter is appropriate for the initiative process is proper only after the petition has been issued, completed and returned, Zimmerman said. To give a clerk the power to make legal decisions about the propriety of petitions "is to invite abuse," he added.
SOS co-founder Janalee Tobias said she was "thrilled" by the court's ruling. "It restores my faith in democracy because it protects the right of citizens to petition government," she said.
Tobias said a majority of South Jordan residents are opposed to the commercial development of the 92-acre riverbottom property, which she described as the city's "crown jewel."
Brent Foutz, one of the residents who took the issue to court, said the city's refusal to provide the petitions was part of a pattern of policies and decisions that have "steamrollered and railroaded" the community.
Foutz said his group has already gathered about half the 1,200 signatures to put the question on the ballot next year.
However, City Manager Gary Chandler said the group may have to start from scratch.
"It's my understanding that they have to use the forms we provide," Chandler said. He added that those forms had already been prepared Friday afternoon and would be furnished on demand, in compliance with the Supreme Court order.
Whether the city accepts a completed petition on the zoning issue is a determination that will be made later, Chandler said.
The city won't be required to accept it, predicted Chief Justice Richard Howe, and that makes the entire petition drive an exercise in futility.
In the court's lone dissent, Howe said case law is clear: Zoning ordinances cannot be enacted through the initiative process.
So, to require a clerk to furnish sponsors with petitions "is to mislead the sponsors and allow them to engage in the time-consuming useless act of collecting signatures," Howe said.
"It is much better to inform the sponsors up front that any petition drive they might present will be rejected because it will be legally insufficient."
South Jordan's attorney, Lisa G. Romney, agreed, saying the reason the city fought the request was to save all the parties time and effort. She noted that at the state level, the law specifically gives the liuetenent governor the authority to reject petition requests involving patently illegal initiatives.
While there is case law suggesting local clerks have the same authority, "the Supreme Court has clarified the law and the city will certainly comply," Romney said.
Tobias said the opponents of the project are willing to expend the time and effort despite the risks. "If there's even a glimmer of hope, it's worth it," she said.