Thursday, October 9, 2008

Good news on the people's right to use the initative and referendum process--emergency order for the Sevier power plant referendum--SB 53 under review

Good news yesterday. The Utah Supreme Court issued an emergency order putting the referendum in Sevier County back on the ballot. The referendum could overturn the zoning decision by the county commission allowing a coal-fired power plant to be built where many residents feel it will affect their homes.

Referendum supporters had initially gathered enough signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. However, the county first quibbled about which acronym of zoning law was on the petition, and then the developers succeeded in convincing a lower judge to remove the referendum based on SB 53, despite the fact that SB 53 took effect after the referendum drive had been successfully completed. (The link in the first paragraph contains articles detailing all of this.) The interested Sevier citizens then appealed the decision to the state supreme court. The Utah Supreme Court issued the decision of emergency extraordinary relief the same day as the first oral arguments in the case.

The court battle will continue and address the bigger issue of whether SB 53 is constitutional. (Please read it--the text is only 6 lines long.) This is huge folks. Can the legislature ban certain types of laws from the processes of public redress? I want to plug my post last month on referendum restrictions passed by the legislature in the session this year. It's so long that I think people were discouraged from reading it. (It also references the Bernick/legislature blow-up over whether he made up a story about referendum laws. You can skim over the initial paragraphs if you want because I just use that dispute to highlight what the legislature is claiming vs. what they really did.) Please take 10 minutes and read through it. You can follow the numerous links to original information or not, but educate yourself on what the legislature is doing to our right to affect their decisions.

I'm going to post links to some articles and the text of the KSL and Tribune articles. I'm underlining a passage in each article detailing how the State Attorney General's office has already issued an opinion that SB 53 is unconstitutional, and that SB 53 would set precedent allowing the legislature to disallow other types of laws from the referendum laws for example?,5143,700265108,00.html
Court rules residents should be allowed to vote on power plant
October 8th, 2008 @ 5:40pm
By John Hollenhorst

This afternoon, the State Supreme Court issued an emergency order allowing Sevier County citizens to vote on an issue that's got a lot of them riled up. It's a case with a narrow focus but broad implications. The Supreme Court's emergency order allows citizens to vote on a controversial power plant.

A lower court previously took the initiative off the ballot. It's an issue with statewide significance: Should "The People" have the right to vote on key issues?

The court has shot down an effort by power plant attorneys to block an Election Day voter initiative. Those attorneys were using a legal argument the Legislature could have used to prohibit voter initiatives on any topic.
Before a coal-burning plant is built in Sevier County, many residents want the right to say "Yea" or "Nay" on Election Day. But power plant attorneys persuaded a judge to remove the initiative from the ballot. The Legislature last session passed a bill forbidding voter initiatives on zoning issues. Fred Finlinson, counsel for Sevier Power, said, "Zoning law is supposed to be uniform and equal."

But Jeffery Owens, a lawyer for Sevier citizens told the Supreme Court, the new law flies in the face of the state constitution, which guarantees citizens the power of the ballot through initiative and referendum. He said, "Certain decisions made by voters are the wrong decision. But they should still, in this democratic society, should still be able to make that determination."

He added, "It's basically a check on the power of the Legislature. And that's especially important in a state like Utah that's heavily Republican."

"I think they're trying to create an even playing field across the entire state, as they do across the nation, and say that votes are not part of the zoning process," Finlinson said.

But another lawyer for the power plant admitted, if the court were to uphold the new law, it could set precedent for the Legislature to ban the initiative and referendum process on other issues from tax cuts to school vouchers. Owens said, "Yes, I think it will have an impact far beyond Sevier County."

We asked Finlinson, "Are you fearful that if it's put to a vote, you'll lose?" He replied, "No, I think we would win."

Owens said, "This is an important enough issue for the citizens of Sevier County that it is worth turning the election upside down."

Now, Sevier County officials will be scrambling to get the initiative back on the ballot. They had already started mailing out ballots without it.

So far, we don't know the Supreme Court's reasoning. They've issued the emergency order, but they'll issue their actual ruling sometime later.

Power plant up to voters
Utah high court says Sevier County initiative should be on ballot, may
rule on constitutional issue later
By Cathy McKitrick
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 10/09/2008 12:53:16 AM MDT

Within hours of hearing oral arguments, Utah's Supreme Court ruled
Wednesday to place a Sevier County citizens initiative back on
November's ballot.
That order overturned a mid-September 6th District Court decision
to yank it off.
Proposition 1 will allow voters to weigh in on a proposed
coal-fired power plant to be built near Sigurd. Plans for the 299-acre
facility have been progressing through the county's planning process
for more than two years and the concept has driven an emotional wedge
between opponents and supporters.
According to its terse order, the high court's full opinion will
come later, "in due course." The complete ruling is expected to
address whether SB53, passed by the 2008 Legislature to put some
restrictions on local initiatives, is constitutional.
"It's quite remarkable," attorney Jeff Owens said of the court's
decision to grant his clients' petition for extraordinary relief. For
Owens, 30, it was his first time arguing a case before the state
Supreme Court.
Power plant opponents applauded the news as a victory for democracy.
"We're elated," Jim Kennon with Sevier Citizens for Clean Air and
Water said in a statement. "It's a good thing we now have the right to
vote on something like a power plant that will have a long-term impact
on our quiet, peaceful community."
The brisk court order stunned attorneys representing the Sevier Power Co.
"I'm not only puzzled, I'm surprised," said Fred Finlinson, a
Saratoga Springs land-use attorney. "We're looking at our options for
a rehearing."
At the heart of this case is Sen. Brent Goodfellow's SB53, which
sailed through the Legislature with broad support and took effect May
The new law prohibits the use of local initiatives to enact or
change land-use ordinances. It also prohibits initiative efforts
related to a city or county's implementation of land-use laws.
In April, the Attorney General's Office said that courts would
likely strike down SB53 because it restricts a fundamental right
guaranteed by the Utah Constitution.

On May 2, a group dubbed the Right To Vote committee submitted
more than enough signatures to Sevier County, but Sevier Power's
attorneys argued that SB53 nullifies that effort because county
officials failed to validate the signatures until June 20.
Owens argued that SB53 is overly broad and unconstitutional.
Cass Butler, an attorney representing Sevier Power, argued that
Article 6 of the state Constitution has limits.
What's more, Butler added, Sevier County has already mailed out
175 absentee ballots without Proposition 1.
"Perhaps they mailed those ballots out at their own risk," Justice
Michael Wilkins responded during Wednesday's hearing.
Proposition 1 would amend the county's conditional use ordinance
to require a public vote before permits are approved for any
coal-fired power plant.
Finlinson, pointing to the county's approval of a planned unit
development overlay zone in June 2006 - enacted specifically for this
facility - said initiative proponents are two years too late and seek
to amend the wrong section of the law.
"It's a heavy burden to make [the county] change all the ballots
for this election," he added.

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