Predictable Goat Rope: Bountiful City Nixes Citizen Vote On New City Hall

A few weeks ago I warned:

Cities and politicians don’t like to lose on these things…politicians will use whatever they can to invalidate a petition or, failing that, pull an end run around a vote outcome…

My post linked to a Clipper article about the city ‘interpreting’ their vote on the city hall. You can guess how they interpreted the vote. Here’s the summary of where things stand from the petition gatherers:

CITY REJECTS CITIZENS’ REFERENDUM
Says New City Hall is Not Up to the Voters

The City of Bountiful on Friday Jan 27th, officially rejected the referendum petition signed by over 4000 Bountiful residents.   “Administrative acts are not referable” to the voters, wrote City Recorder Shawna Andrus about the City’s decision.  In other words, the City claims that the October decision to build a new city hall and plaza—officially the “Bountiful Downtown Plan”—was a mere administrative decision not subject to voter approval.

Council member John Pitt explained his support for rejecting the referendum.  “I see the city hall decision as clearly an administrative decision since it involved no laws, no ordinances, no tax increase, and no zoning changes,” he said.

During December, 4126 citizens signed a petition asking City leaders to put the matter on the ballot next November.  The petition was submitted to the Davis County Recorder who then forwarded it to the City.  Although the City claims the petition was “insufficient,” the message from voters was crystal clear, say the co-sponsors: “Let the taxpayers decide how their money is spent.”

Bryan Anderson, one of the co-sponsors, said that before he started gathering signatures, he did not know how intensely Bountiful residents felt about the City’s plan.  “I now know for sure that the majority of Bountiful residents are against the idea.  Of the hundreds of signatures I gathered, I only met one person who was actually in favor of the idea,” said Anderson. “People didn’t just sign their name in favor of referring the matter to voters, rather, they spoke of their frustration with our city leaders’ decision.”

In October, the City Council voted to demolish the University of Utah Extension building (formerly Stoker School), sell off the current city campus for mixed use development and a bus station, and build a new city hall and plaza on the Stoker site.  Estimates of the cost of the plan vary from $15 million to $22 million dollars.

Council member Richard Higginson admitted at the October City Council meeting that the current city hall “could probably stand for another 60, or 80, or 100 years.”  But, he said, “That’s not the issue.”  “City Hall is just in the way right here for the transit-oriented development” the City Council wants to build on the current city campus.

“What ‘transit-oriented development’?” asks co-sponsor Dean Collinwood.  “Have the citizens ever been given a chance to vote on such a scheme?  Have they ever agreed to have rapid transit busses running in front of the single-family residences near City Hall?   This is a scheme that exists only in the minds of the City Council.  It doesn’t exist in the hearts of the citizens, because they have never been given a chance to vote on it.”

Under Utah law, voters can make some policies directly, without having to go through elected representatives, explained Dean Collinwood. To do so, the issue must involve a “local law,” defined by the Utah Code as any “ordinance,” “resolution,” or “master plan.”

“Clearly, the Bountiful Downtown Plan, a massive project to alter the location of Bountiful’s seat of government, sell off or demolish several pieces of valuable city property, develop Five-Points, and turn the city campus into a rapid transit bus station, fits the legal definition of a master plan perfectly,” he said.

In City documents, the master plan is known as the “Bountiful Downtown Plan.”  City leaders often refer to it as “the plan,” “the project,” or “the comprehensive solution.”  Council member John Pitt calls it “the $22 million redevelopment plan.”  City Manager Gary Hill explained that the idea was to “take advantage of the property around Stoker that the City owns to develop into a plaza, and then to develop…the area around [the current City Hall] as a transit-oriented mixed use development, and then to take advantage of those ideas and reinvest money at the Five-Points area.”

The problem, says Dean Collinwood, is “the people who would pay for it were not asked to approve it.  That’s about as un-American as you can get.”

Half the states in America and all the states in the western half of the country allow popular referendums so that matters can be put forward for direct vote by the people or to recall elected officials. The referendum petition that citizens recently signed was such an effort.

One city-owned property cited for demolition under the Bountiful Downtown Plan is the Stoker School building which is listed on the National Historic Register and which has been used for some thirty years as the University of Utah’s Bountiful Extension.  The Extension caters to some 1200 students a year.  University officials have indicated that if their building is demolished, the University will leave Bountiful and South Davis County permanently.  A group of citizens has already started the process of asking a judge to stop the demolition.

Another part of the masterplan is to sell off the current city campus and turn the space into a bus station surrounded by mixed-use, high density buildings.  Library officials have indicated that the Library is already short on parking space, and that if the city hall campus is filled up with buildings, they will not have space for Library patrons to park…

What I said two weeks ago bears repeating: “Politicians will protect their pet projects tooth-and-nail.”

City politicians have had a field day over the last decade or so heaping new pet projects, taxes, and costs on citizens. It needs to end. The council and mayor should be voted out next election an allow for a fresh start with a focus on core city services/functionality rather than personal legacy building.

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