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Draper kills referendum two minutes before the deadline

Published September 4, 2014 4:01 pm

Local elections • The city appeared to be OK with referendum but then pulled the plug, citing legal issues.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Residents in the Traverse Ridge area of Draper have been working for months to get a referendum on November's ballot to eliminate what they see as double taxation. But at 4:58 p.m. Tuesday — two minutes before the deadline for the city to approve final ballot language — city officials informed organizers they were pulling the plug.

County and state election officials were surprised, saying they can't recall such an eleventh-hour rejection. Organizers feel betrayed. But city officials say the referendum raised a tough legal question that took them until the last moments to answer.

"That's just when we got everything ready," City Recorder Rachelle Conner said when asked about the 4:58 p.m. notification.

"Since such a request is unprecedented in the state of Utah, the city needed adequate time to consult with both internal and external legal counsel as well as the lieutenant governor's office in order to formulate its legal opinion," city spokeswoman Maridene Alexander said in a statement.

State elections director Mark Thomas was adamant he didn't advise the city to scrap the referendum as it entered the homestretch to making the ballot.

"We did not advise them one way or the other. We did not give them an opinion," Thomas said.

He believed the issues had been put to bed earlier this summer, when the city had prepared the petitions for organizers to distribute, though state law is less than clear about that constituting official approval.

Everyone knew the proposed referendum was the first of its kind.

Voters in cities and counties can submit questions to the ballot under the Utah Constitution and state law, but there is no mention of special service districts having the same franchise.

The Traverse Ridge Special Service District is different than most because it is overseen by the Draper City Council rather than a separate board, an arrangement believed to exist in only a handful of cases.

The city prepared petitions for the organizers to pass around, including writing the proposed ballot language, and had been in touch with county clerks in Salt Lake and Utah counties about saving a place on the fall ballots because the neighborhood in question, with more than 1,200 residents in the southeast part of Draper, straddles the county line.

"It's actually somewhat abusive," organizer Christine McClory said of the city's sudden reversal. "If you're going to throw a fit, throw it on the front end. At least then we kind of know what we're dealing with and [can] figure out if we can overcome it. But to allow every party to feel like we've been successful, I think is really an injustice. That to me is the rub."

After getting the petitions from the city, McClory and more than a dozen others spent hours canvassing their neighborhood and collecting 369 signatures — more than the number needed to gain ballot status.

Adding to the suspicion of residents that the city is being less than aboveboard was its abrupt halt in recent days of an independent consultant's review of claims that the special property tax in the district far exceeded what was justified by the extra costs of snow removal and road maintenance.

The city still faces a bill for most of the nearly $15,000 consulting contract even though the consultant wasn't allowed to complete the examination.

"At this point," McClory said, "we are talking to legal counsel about what our options might be."

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen confirmed that her office had verified the petition signatures as those of registered voters and returned the completed petition packets Aug. 18.

All that was left was for Draper's city recorder to count the verified signatures and confirm them as "sufficient."

Swensen and her Utah County counterpart had kept a place open on their ballots for the referendum to be inserted before they are sent to the printer and, in mid-September, sent to overseas and military voters.

"We were just waiting for the language and everything was moving along," Swensen said, adding her office was informed the referendum was off in an email sent by Draper at 4:51 p.m. Tuesday.

It was a first for the longtime county clerk, who said she'd never witnessed a referendum being invalidated "after the petitions are verified and everything. I've never seen that."

Thomas said the state was notified at just about 5 p.m.

Conner said the city hadn't quashed the referendum effort earlier because it didn't have a solid answer of whether it was legal.

"No one knew how to answer this question because state law doesn't allow for it and so we were just kind of waiting until we heard back with an answer. There's nothing in state law that allows it, so that's why it was kind of a last-minute thing."

dharrie@sltrib.com