Billy McCoy's petitions are in the hands of the Janesville City Council

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, August 14, 2014

JANESVILLE—Janesville resident Billy McCoy's two petitions aimed at halting the city's fire station construction plans and capping city project spending are now in the hands of the Janesville City Council. 

Janesville City Clerk Jean Wulf said Thursday that the petitions, which McCoy turned in to City Hall two weeks ago, have enough valid signatures and were filed in “proper form.”

Wulf has forwarded the petitions to the council. The council has 30 days to act on them.

That means the petitions have cleared one of two major hurdles. They have enough valid signatures under state law. Each petition needed a number of signatures equal to 15 percent of city residents who voted in the last general election to be considered by the council as petitions for direct legislation, according to a clerk's count.

For the next hurdle the council must decide whether to enact one or both of the petitions as city policy, consider them advisory, or disregard one or both of them.

Those decisions, which under law, the council must make in 30 days, are unlikely to come until the city attorney offers a legal opinion on both referendums, City Attorney Wald Klimczyk and City Council President DuWayne Severson said Thursday.

Klimczyk said he expects to publicly release his opinions on both petitions late next week, but it's not clear how soon the council could consider either petition, or whether they would be discussed at the next city council meeting, Monday Aug. 25.

He said the question is whether both petitions have “written language that complies with (state) statutory requirements and earlier state court decisions.”

Klimczyk issued an earlier opinion that McCoy's petition that seeks to force the council halt the planned Milton Avenue fire station pending a voter referendum is invalid. He said that's because it seeks to use direct legislation to roll back a legislative decision the council made in April. Klimcyzyk has said that tactic is “improper,” and not specifically allowed under state law.

Klimczyk said Thursday that he would probably stick with his earlier stance on the fire station petition, but he has not fully reviewed McCoy's second petition. That petition seeks to force the council to enact a charter ordinance that would require a voter referendum to approve all city projects that cost $2 million or more.

Severson said Thursday afternoon he had only just learned the petitions had been forwarded to the council. He said it was too early to comment. He planned to discuss the petitions Friday with City Manager Mark Freitag during a weekly briefing.

“It all depends on what the (city attorney's) decision is, or what their ruling is, and what our options are,” Severson said. “If there is only one or multiple options on how to handle the petitions, that's the real decision. We just need to find out what are options are,” he said.

Because the petitions are separate, independent requests for council action, a legal opinion on them likely won't be cut-and-dried. Both petitions have clauses that state that if the council doesn't act on them, they would revert automatically to voter referendums on the November election ballot.

It's not clear whether those clauses carry the force of law, but it's likely there could be more than one recommendation for each petition from the city attorney's office.

That means the council likely will face multiple sets of options on how to act on the petitions.

Klimczyk said the council has not asked for a “legal recommendation,” and his advice won't bind the council to a decision on either petition. 

“They've not asked for a recommendation from me. They've asked for a read on the legal validity of the petitions under state law—whether either is even something that they could enact,” Klimczyk said. “They could make any decision. They don't legally have to wait for my decision or even follow it. It's still their prerogative.”

McCoy has said he hopes the council at the very least considers both referendums as “heavily advisory,” given the weight he believes both petitions have.

“More than 3,500 people signed both petitions. People, a lot of people, have spoken,” McCoy said in an earlier interview.  

But on Wednesday, he dialed up that thinking, saying he believes the council has no choice but to enact both petitions as city policy.

McCoy said both have wording ripped from state law; the petition seeking a $2 million spending cap on city projects was drawn from earlier referendums used in Wisconsin to force changes to charter ordinances. It is based on state law to enact charter ordinances.

He said if the council disregards that petition based on its own decision or a legal opinion that it's invalid, he'd consider suing the city. And he said if the council throws out either petition, “there's going to be some people marching on city hall.”

McCoy said he believes the council should roll back its decision to build the planned replacement of fire station at Milton Avenue, because he believes the council's decision-making process was faulty and “poisonous.”

He said residents don't like the fact the location of the new station was discussed in closed session, and that the station will cost $9 million—including the cost of tearing down a dozen homes and relocating residents who live there.

“It's a poison tree, and it was a poison tree from the start,” McCoy said. “You can't let a poison tree keep growing. You got to cut it down.”

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