City denies 2 referendum petitions

The City of Winslow responded to the filing of three referendum petitions by declaring that two of them were invalid. In response to the city, the attorney for Maria “Bunny” Gamez, the citizen who filed the petitions, has asked the Navajo County Superior Court to order the city clerk to approve the two outstanding petitions and forward them to the County Recorder’s Office.

A hearing at the Superior Court was scheduled for today, but Gamez’s attorney, John T. Moshier, had asked for a one week delay because his client had a previous appointment out of town. The court’s decision was not available as of press time.

The case involves three petitions that Gamez filed with City Clerk Suzy Wetzel on March 10. The first was directed toward the City Council’s first reading of ordinance 963, which was read at a regular Council meeting on Jan. 25. The ordinance allowed for 7.61 acres of land to be rezoned from Multi-Family/Manufactured Housing to Commercial. This is land that Wal-Mart needs to build its proposed Supercenter behind the existing store.

The Council adopted the ordinance at a Feb. 22 regular meeting after the second reading, which led Gamez to file the second petition. The third petition was directed at ordinance 964, also adopted Feb. 22, which allowed the city to amend its General Plan in accordance with the rezoning.

Gamez said she filed the petitions so the issue could be brought to the voters.

According to the lawsuit, the city did not accept the first petition because it was taken out against a first reading of an ordinance not the adoption of one.

Last Friday, Moshier said he was also filing a suit against the city for denying the third petition. The city claimed ordinance 964 contained two exhibits that were legally required to be attached to the petitions while they were circulated. Wetzel said they were not turned in with the petition.

Gamez said she didn’t receive the two exhibits from Wetzel.

“If we were not issued a copy of plan, then there shouldn’t be a complaint about us not including it,” Gamez said. “What was included was what issued to us.”

Wetzel told the Winslow Mail that each of the petitions contained the required number of signatures when they were filed. However, only the second one, relating to the adoption of ordinance 963, would be forwarded to the County Recorder’s Office.

Wetzel said she planned to take the second petition to the county last Thursday. She also said she verified 252 signatures on that petition.

The County Recorder’s Office performs a random verification of 5-percent of the 252 signatures, which works out to 11. If there are still 11 valid signatures, the petitions go back to the city so a referendum election could be scheduled. There are four months in which an election can be held in Arizona — March, May, September and November.

Gamez has argued publicly with city officials, including City Attorney Dale Patton, at Council meetings over the Wal-Mart issue. She said she believes the city is looking for any reason to discredit her.

“We’re just going to make sure all our bases are covered,” she said. “I’m not going to take any chances of it being a technical error. If we lose, we lose to the people, not a technicality.”

Legal gray

Moshier, an attorney for the Morrill & Aronson firm in Phoenix, said the question of when to file referendum petitions has never been clearly defined by the Arizona Supreme Court. Winslow is atypical in its requirements to have a proposed ordinance read three times before it is adopted, he added.

“In Phoenix, for example and other large cities, by the time it makes it to council it goes up once,” Moshier said. “It’s got to go through planning commissions and everything else, and by the time it finally gets to the council, they hear it, they vote on it and its up or down and it’s effective then. So there’s no question about when the clock begins to run on your referendum. What we need to know is which the trigger is.”

Winslow’s statutes allow for an ordinance to pass after the second reading and avoid a third if at least five council members approve.

Wal-Mart is also named in the lawsuit but only as an interested party. Moshier said naming the company now speeds up its intervention in the case, which he said he expects the retailer to do eventually.

In the lawsuit, Gamez is not seeking monetary awards other than attorney’s fees.

Either side can appeal the Superior Court’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.

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