A Utah group has filed a referendum to repeal Provo City’s mask mandate

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Protesters listen as Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee speaks during a rally protesting against masks being required in schools, before the Utah County Commission meeting in Provo, July 15, 2020.

A group calling itself Utahan’s (sic) for Medical Freedom (UMF) has filed a referendum that aims to overturn Provo City’s recent mask mandate, claiming that the city council and recorder are violating residents’ constitutional rights.

Last Thursday, the Provo City Council overrode Mayor Michelle Kaufusi’s veto of a citywide mask mandate and the law went into effect immediately.

“While responses to COVID-19 are all over the spectrum, one point is certain: The People of the State of Utah are the final say in all legislative matters,” UMF said in a news release.

“We’ve had enough of overbearing, unaccountable, uneducated, emotional knee-jerk reactions that curtail or eliminate our right to decide matters concerning our own health and safety.”

Provo City Recorder Amanda Ercanbrack said the referendum will not appear on this year’s ballot because the deadline has already passed.

However, if UMF is able to collect 3,200 valid signatures — including signatures from 7.5% of registered voters in at least four of the five city council districts — the mask mandate will be put on hold and the referendum will appear on the November 2021 ballot.

Ercanbrack said UMF has to take several steps over the next few weeks before it can start collecting signatures on Sept. 25.

Over the next 20 days, UMF must prepare an argument for the city’s proposition information pamphlet. Advocates for the mask mandate will also write an argument for the pamphlet and the city’s budget officer will prepare a legal ad and fiscal impact statement.

UMF organizer Mary Ann Nielsen raised concerns that the self-expiring mask ordinance can be renewed by the council on Nov. 15, and would make any referendum moot if the group hadn’t gotten its signatures validated beforehand.

For the group to meet that deadline is virtually impossible, given the waiting periods and timelines involved.

“This has the chilling effect of dissuading any person or group from EVER filing referendums,” she said.

But Ercanbrack said the date when signatures will be validated depends on how quickly UMF collects the signatures and how long it takes to verify them, and that citizens don’t have to use the entire 45-day period.

As soon as UMF finishes collecting signatures, it can turn them in to Utah County, which has 30 days to verify the signatures. Once the county has verified them, the signatures go to Ercanbrack, who has two days to count them.

Nielson claimed that the Provo City Council and recorder are violating the group’s constitutional rights.

She referred to a section of the Utah Constitution that says the voters of any county, city or town can require any law or ordinance passed by the lawmaking body of the city to be given to voters “as provided by statute” before the law or ordinance takes effect.

“This is not a game and we won’t tolerate being browbeaten, demeaned and manipulated,” Nielson said. She argued that the law should be on hold until the end of the referendum process.

But Provo Deputy City Attorney Brian Jones said by statute the Utah Legislature devised a specific process for putting a referendum on the ballot and getting a law suspended, which includes collecting the signatures first and having them certified.

“Until [UMF collects] those signatures and [has] them certified, they haven’t followed the process provided by statute and therefore the law isn’t suspended until they’ve done that.”

More information on UMF is available on the group’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/utahansformedicalfreedom.