City to decide whether to continue with SOS petition

By The Mercury

City commissioners will take up the question of a petition that would force certain spending levels on social services — and with it a legal opinion terming the petition invalid — at what promises to be a lively meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The petitions were circulated by an ad hoc group called Save Our Social Services (SOS), and they resulted in the collection of 1,500 signatures, six more than were needed to force commission consideration. Fundamentally, the petition organizers want to require commissioners to set aside at least 2 percent of general fund spending on social services.

Normally, meeting the signature requirement would mean that commissioners would either have to adopt the ordinance at their Tuesday meeting or put the question to a public vote, presumably at the August primary election. But assistant city attorney Katie Jackson threw a monkey wrench into the hopes of petition organizers late last week when she ruled that the petitions were invalid for the initiative and referendum process because they were predominantly administrative rather than legislative in nature. Jackson found that the initiative and referendum process cannot be used for predominantly administrative ordinance.

That leaves commissioners with three options Tuesday:

1. They can accept their attorney’s opinion, refuse to take any action on the petition, and court protests along with a potential lawsuit from the petition organizers for failing to either pass the ordinance or put it to a vote.

2. They can adopt the ordinance against the advice of their counsel, in that case potentially courting a lawsuit from ordinance opponents who would be able to use the city legal staff’s own arguments against the commission.

3. They can ignore their attorney’s recommendation not to take up the issue, but vote down the ordinance. That action would throw the question to voters on the August ballot, again with the possibility of intervening legal action.

SOS Co-Chair Debbie Nuss said she hopes commissioners will give residents a chance to vote on the issue.

“The city attorney’s opinion is just that,” Nuss said. “It’s an opinion. It’s not a ruling. Only a court would be able to decide whether a petition is valid.”

Nuss said that SOS members considered the same Supreme Court ruling Jackson cites in her opinion but came to a different conclusion.

“It says that the guidelines have to be applied on a a case-by-case basis, and it says that they shouldn’t be interpreted so strictly as to render the referendum process unavailable to citizens,” Nuss said. “It’s cautionary in its conclusion.”

She said that if commissioners side with the city attorney, SOS isn’t likely to challenge the decision in court.

“This isn’t about having a legal competition,” she said. “This is about what’s doing right for the community in terms of protecting social services and providing services to the people who need that support. This isn’t a legal battle; it’s a moral and political battle. It’s unfortunate that we have commissioners who would let it get to this point anyway.”

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners will consider a proposed amendment to the south redevelopment area plan. The amendment, requested by developers, would permit the construction of an apartment/retail structure on what had been zoned as parking space near the Hilton Garden Inn.

The Planning Board reviewed the application last month and recommended its approval.

The meeting will be held in the Commission room at City Hall.

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