PROVIDENCE, Cache County — Leaders of a Providence citizens group are accusing city officials of an 11th-hour attempt to sabotage a water initiative on Tuesday's ballot.

On Oct. 27 — 10 days before the election — the Cache County attorney asked Utah's attorney general for an opinion on whether a competing water initiative should be placed on the ballot. As an alternative, the county attorney asked the attorney general whether a note could be placed on the ballot saying votes on the water initiative would not be counted.

But the attorney general's opinion on Tuesday denied both requests. The opinion, written by assistant attorney general Thom Roberts, said votes on the water initiative should be counted because the proposition's backers had met the legal requirements.

"The right of citizens to utilize the initiative process, and to have a vote (on) the initiative when they comply with these requirements, is strongly protected by the courts, which have even called it 'sacrosanct' and a 'fundamental right,"' the opinion said.

The opinion also rejected the city's contention that an alternative water ordinance adopted by the city Aug. 14 was intended for Tuesday's ballot.

"(The city) did not call it a competing law and take efforts to place it on the ballot," the opinion stated.

Mayor Randy Simmons said the city wasn't trying to derail the initiative, which calls for new developments to have water physically transported to Providence. Under the proposal, just having rights to water would not be sufficient.

Simmons said a Salt Lake attorney notified him Thursday that state law requires a competing ordinance, like the one the city adopted in August, to be on the ballot. He said the city asked Cache County Attorney George Daines to clarify the issue, but Daines recused himself because of a conflict of interest and referred the request to the attorney general.

"We got exactly what we wanted," Simmons said. "We weren't demanding, expecting. We were just acting."

But Laura Fisher, co-founder of the citizens group known as People for Wet Water, doesn't buy it.

"We view this as another tricky legal maneuver by the mayor to keep the voters of Providence from having a say," Fisher said in a news release issued after the county attorney asked for the opinion but before the opinion was released.

Fisher wasn't as strident after the opinion was released, however. Although she stopped short of claiming city officials tried to sabotage the vote, she finds it hard to believe they didn't understand the procedures and deadlines for putting propositions on the ballot.

Simmons admitted the opinion makes the city look bad.

"There's just no way to come away from this clean, even though it was a complete surprise," Simmons said.

But Rand Henderson, a Logan lawyer who represents Fisher, said city officials are in damage-control mode.

"I think they knew exactly what was going on," Henderson said. "They're just trying to spin it so they don't look bad."

The dispute is the latest skirmish between People for Wet Water and city officials.

Residents affiliated with People for Wet Water sued to force a public vote on a City Council decision in March 2006 to rezone two 20-acre parcels to residential from agricultural on the grounds the city hadn't followed legal procedures and hadn't properly notified residents about public hearings.

But after the city repeated the public hearings in January and voted again on the rezoning, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit in September.

Some of those affiliated with People for Wet Water also sued to force a public vote on the city's decision to annex 43 acres along the east bench. Although they obtained more than 1,000 signatures, a district court judge ruled they didn't submit the petition within the required 45 days after the City Council approved the annexation.

Many of those affiliated with People for Wet Water were also angered when the City Council overruled the Planning Commission and rezoned 105 acres in the Providence the foothills to residential from agricultural.

People for Wet Water endorsed four candidates for the City Council in September's primary election: Linda Goetze, Don Calderwood, Sharell Eames and Ron Liechty. They were the top vote-getters and qualified for the Nov. 6 runoff election, along with David Low and John Russell.

Many city officials see Wet Water supporters simply as obstructionists.

"These people are just totally anti-growth," City Councilman Deon Johnson said. "I don't think it boils down to anything else."

But Fisher said city officials are more concerned about meeting developers' needs than meeting the public's needs.

"I don't think it has much to do with wanting to stop growth," she said. "We're concerned more with good government."

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