Billy McCoy petitions get cold shoulder from Janesville City Council

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Neil Johnson
Monday, August 25, 2014

JANESVILLE—The Janesville City Council gave resident Billy McCoy's two petitions a big rebuff Monday night.

Acting on legal advice from city attorney Wald Klimczyk that McCoy's two direct legislation petitions are “invalid” in their application of state law, council members said in discussions Monday night they would not act on either.

The move doesn't automatically veto McCoy's petitions, which seek to halt the Milton Avenue fire station and establish a charter ordinance for a $2 million spending cap on city projects, but it puts the freeze on hopes McCoy may have had to get the petitions set as referendum questions on the November ballot.

The deadline for any municipality to submit petitions to the Rock County Clerk's office for the November ballot is Wednesday, and the petitions could only go on a ballot through a city council resolution.

Meanwhile, the city has until the second week of September to make any final decision on how to handle McCoy's petitions, based on a deadline set by state statutes. That means the issue “remains open,” Klimczyk told the council Monday.

But the council's move Monday is a bold sign it has little appetite to have its decision rolled back on $9 million a fire station plan that residents have derided as being handled behind closed doors.

McCoy and other supporters of the petitions who turned out Monday urged the council to put the petitions on a ballot as referendum questions.

Council members told the residents they did an admirable job of organizing and filing the petition. But that's where the love stopped.

Members of the council defended themselves Monday night for the council's decision earlier this year to roll forward with a new Central Fire Station that would replace the one built nearby on Milton Avenue in 1957.

And they sought to fend off the specter of McCoy's spending cap petition, which seeks to push all capital projects costing more than $2 million to a voter referendum.

Council Member Matt Kealy said he's “terrified” of a petition he says could put practically every feasible city project on a voter referendum.  

“Two million is a very low number,” and could relate to just about any city capital project that's on the board in the next several years, he said.

He said to cap and close out the city landfill someday, it could cost $10 million. That's not a choice, he said. It's a state mandate.

“Is the general public going to say 'I don't want to close that (landfill)?'” Kealy said. “Do we then pay fines from the DNR for not being compliant?”

Kealy also said such a referendum could only enable perennially large blocs of voters from parts of the city's northeast side to eschew city projects and “only pay for stuff in their neighborhood.”

Council member Doug Marklein used more colorful words in a long soliloquy Monday, suggesting such a spending cap would grab the council below the midsection.

He told 25 residents at the meeting Monday night that McCoy's spending cap petition would hobble a city he said already gets less of a cut of state shared revenue than practically any other neighboring municipality.

Council Member Mark Bobzien said the city would be “cutting our own throats” by agreeing to McCoy's proposed spending cap.

Resident Diana Lund, who spoke in favor of the petitions Monday, told the council that its choice to make major decisions on the fire station behind closed doors caused a “breakdown in the trust” of residents.

She said putting the questions to a voter referendum would “restore” some of that trust.

Bobzien told residents at the meeting Monday “we have a referendum every spring” via the city council election.

Other council members pointed out four council seats are up this spring, and if residents seek to truly affect city legislation, they can seat or unseat the candidates they feel will best represent their interests. 

The council's statements and choice not to act on the petitions Monday didn't answer the question of whether either petition has any legal force to go on an election ballot.

Klimczyk advised the council in his legal opinion that the petitions are flawed and “invalid” because they try to use administrative authority to trump legislative acts of the council, something he says state statute on direct legislation petitions does not allow.   

For the same reason, he wrote in his opinion, neither petition could be legally decided through a voter referendum.  

McCoy on Monday handed the council a state Supreme Court decision on a citizens' spending petition out of Mount Horeb. He said the court decision upheld it was legal to be voted on by residents and enacted.

McCoy and other residents who spoke during a comment session Monday told the city it was spreading misinformation by telling the council and the public McCoy's fire station petition seeks to “repeal” a council decision.

McCoy pointed out its wording asks the council to “delay” the fire station decision until voters can decide through a referendum whether the project and its location is appropriate.

He told The Gazette Monday the council's failure to act only sets the clock ticking for both petitions to automatically go on an election ballot.

He said he's been in touch with attorneys, and he's willing to try to mount a legal challenge if the council doesn't move on the petitions by the September deadline.

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