Our Views: If it has legal grounds, Janesville City Council should reject Billy McCoy's petitions

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Janesville City Council faces tough decisions Monday night in a mess partly of its own making.

What should it do with Billy McCoy's two petitions? One asks the city to rescind its vote to build a $9 million central fire station and instead let residents decide in a referendum. The second seeks a new ordinance that would require referendum approval for any capital project costing more than $2 million.

City Attorney Wald Klimczyk says “fatal legal defects” make the petitions invalid. He recommends the council take no action on them.

Doing so would ignore the wishes of thousands of residents. If council members think they've gotten heat for their fire station decision, flames of anger might flare out of control if they disregard the petitions without somehow acknowledging the desires of signers.

Klimczyk says the council has choices. It can enact the petitions as policy, consider them advisory, submit them to voters as referendums or take no action.

Two issues are at play.

First, do the intents of the petitions have merit? We'd argue they do not.

It's no surprise the council riled many residents by making its initial decision on the fire station in closed session. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association's attorney, an expert on the state's open meetings law, questioned the legality of that closed meeting. Still, in April, the council voted in open session to proceed. The city has already invested $1 million to buy neighboring properties for the station.

The petition demanding that residents vote on any project topping $2 million would hamstring the city. We live in a representative democracy. We elect officials to make the best choices on our behalf. We trust them to study issues and see the big picture on utility, street and other projects or quality-of-life proposals. An ordinance requiring voter approval of every $2 million project would hamper efforts of city officials to react quickly when sudden needs arise, as well as to use vision in making the best long-range decisions.

The second issue is what the council should do Monday. The decision regarding the first petition seems clear. The council's fire station vote in open session validated its decision in closed session. In Klimczyk's opinion, state law does not allow a petition to exert “administrative” authority over a legislative decision.

The legality of the second petition seems murky. Klimczyk spent 56 pages trying to explain his opinion. Obviously, the legalese is hard to grasp.

State law has allowed voters to petition for direct legislation since 1911. In 2004, voters in Lake Geneva and Fontana approved ordinances that require their communities to put projects of $1 million or more to binding referendums. If other municipalities can enact such ordinances, what makes McCoy's petition invalid? Maybe Klimczyk can explain it Monday in a way most everyone can understand.

It was good to read in Friday's Gazette that City Manager Mark Freitag is willing to offer his opinions. He said he would do so only after the council has a chance to discuss the petitions Monday. This former military man might be a newbie to city government, but it appears he won't sit out this battle. His advice might guide council members down the appropriate path.

In an interesting twist, the council faces another big decision Monday—whether to put a referendum on the November ballot that would ask residents to approve an extra $1.2 million in property taxes each of the next nine years to catch up with street repairs. McCoy's argument against spending vast sums on the fire station or other projects often comes back to his position that the city should first fix its streets.

Still, if the council is convinced that it has solid legal grounds for disregarding McCoy's petitions, it should do so. If McCoy and his followers don't like that, instead of entangling the city in an expensive court battle, they should strive to elect leaders who think like they do starting next April.

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