Petition seeks to preserve right to vote on new city debt
Concerned citizens are mounting a petition drive challenging the City of Marion’s attempt to eliminate voter approval of new city borrowing.
State law requires that most new debt incurred by cities be approved in advance by voters.
A charter ordinance passed July 26 by Marion City Council would invalidate that law.
However, the invalidation is subject to challenge. Voters have until Oct. 10 to submit a petition forcing a public vote on the proposed ordinance.
When the proposed ordinance was adopted, Mayor David Mayfield insisted that the ordinance would preserve voters’ rights.
Legal experts are unanimous in saying this is not true.
The ordinance, written by a company that charges the city to sell its bonds, instead would allow the council to approve borrowing on its own, whenever a simple majority of its members pass and publish what normally would be a nonbinding resolution.
It allows — but does not require — the city to offer a 30-day period in which residents might challenge the borrowing and force a referendum.
It also allows — but does not require — continuation of state requirements that all such borrowing be subject to a referendum without need for a petition.
But it includes no requirement that either of these steps be taken. It merely allows them to happen if the council chooses not to exercise the first option and approve the borrowing on its own, without involving voters.
The charter ordinance was published in full, as required by state law, two times in the Marion County Record.
A heavily edited version, leaving out all references to voter rights, was published in a city newsletter sent out with utility bills.
Asked to comment at the time on what was left out, newsletter editor Margo Yates said: “I’m just doing what I’m told to do.”
Under state law, proposed charter ordinances overturning state law are subject to a 60-day protest period after second publication of the ordinance in the official city newspaper.
If, during those 60 days, a number of citizens equivalent to 10% of those who voted in the last city election sign a petition demanding a vote, the ordinance will not take effect unless voters approve it in a referendum.
Such a referendum is what the petition drive seeks.
Work on the petition began immediately after the ordinance was adopted.
Complicated legal requirements delayed completion of petition documents until this week, eating up more than 40 of the 60 days allowed for protest.
The delay is significant. One of the options in the ordinance would allow for just a 30-day protest period for petitions challenging borrowing. The challenge period also would begin a week earlier, after only one printing in the official newspaper. And it would require roughly five times more signatures to force a referendum.
During debate over the charter ordinance, Mayfield repeatedly insisted that the only alternative to passing the ordinance would be to increase property taxes to pay for street repairs and other capital improvements.
Legal experts again are unanimous in stating that Mayfield’s claim is false.
Had the city followed state law instead of seeking to overturn it, the question of whether to borrow to make improvements could have been included on the Nov. 4 general election ballot
If voters approved, borrowing could have commenced immediately after the election. At most, borrowing would have been delayed four weeks to allow for a referendum.
It’s now too later to get an issue added to the Nov. 4 ballot.
If the petition succeeds — and organizers are confident it will — a referendum on the ordinance will have to be scheduled.
If voters reject the ordinance in that referendum, a second referendum would be needed before borrowing could begin.
The net impact of the attempt to eliminate voter approval might actually be a significant delay in obtaining whatever money the city hopes to borrow.
To be legally valid, petitions cannot be left to be signed. A person designated as circulating the petition must witness each signature personally.
As a result, the petition will be available for signing only at scheduled events or by appointment.
Planning and zoning commissioner Darvin Markley, who paid for the legal costs associated with the petition, is its official circulator.
People with addresses within Marion’s city limits may contact him at (620) 382-7678 to arrange to sign the petition or ask questions about it.