City council, McCoy aren't eye-to-eye on petitions

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Neil Johnson
Tuesday, August 26, 2014

JANESVILLE—Although the Janesville City Council gave Billy McCoy's two petitions a big rebuff this week, McCoy said he believes at least one of the petitions is still on solid legal ground.

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

McCoy's petitions seek to halt the Milton Avenue fire station and establish a charter ordinance requiring the council seek voter permission through referendum for all capital projects over $2 million.

Klimczyk had advised the council that he believes the petitions are invalid because they try to use administrative authority to trump legislative acts of the council, something he said state statutes do not allow.  

For the same reason, he wrote in an opinion, neither petition could be legally enacted as policy through a voter referendum.

McCoy said he believes the $2 million spending cap petition still has a chance to reach voters.

McCoy on Monday handed the council a 2003 state Supreme Court decision on a citizens spending petition in the village of Mt. Horeb.

According to the Supreme Court ruling, a citizens group in 2000 petitioned the village of Mt. Horeb to enact an ordinance that required any construction project costing $1 million or more be submitted to a binding voter referendum.  

The Mt. Horeb Village Board in 2001 neither adopted nor voted on the petition and concluded it believed the petition was invalid because it was “not an appropriate subject” for direct legislation.

The citizens filed a lawsuit, which wound through circuit and appellate courts on its way to the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled against the village, saying that under state statutes the petition was legislative in nature, did not repeal an existing ordinance, would not modify or conflict with existing ordinances and would not bind the village from creating its own legislation.

It also upheld a writ of mandamus by the citizens. A writ of mandamus is a legal document that seeks to force compliance with legal duty—including compliance with the state's direct legislation petition statute. 

The court's ruling did not specify what kind of decision the village would have to make, other than that the decision would have to comply with state law on petitions.

The Janesville City Council's inaction Monday doesn't automatically veto McCoy's petitions, but it puts the freeze on hopes McCoy might have had to get the referendum questions onto the November ballot.

The deadline for any municipality to submit petitions to the Rock County Clerk's Office for the November ballot is Wednesday, Aug. 27, and the petitions could only go on a ballot through a city council resolution.

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.

The council's move Monday is a 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 said could put practically every feasible city project on a voter referendum. 

He also said such a referendum could 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.”

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

McCoy told The Gazette on 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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