Zoning issue could be headed to referendum

Opponents of a Wal-Mart Supercenter say it’s not over yet.

Three petitions containing more than 700 signatures of residents who oppose rezoning land that Wal-Mart is eyeing to build its proposed Supercenter could force the issue to a public vote as early as September.

Last week, City Clerk Suzy Wetzel received two referendum petitions concerning the rezoning of 7.61 acres of land north of the current store and one that would amend the city’s General Plan.

More than double the amount of signatures needed to hold a referendum were turned in, however, city officials said the petitions’ circulators may have misrepresented the issue or flat-out lied to residents to get them to sign.

Mayor Jim Boles said about seven people told him that they wanted to remove their names from the petitions claiming the circulators told them the petitions were in favor of the City Council’s decision to rezone the land.

“After they had signed they were told what they had signed and they were not happy about it,” Boles said at the March 22 Council meeting.

Councilman Peter Cake added he was told by residents that the circulators were younger than 18-years old, which, if proven true, would nullify all the signatures on those petitions.

Maria “Bunny” Gamez, chairman of the political action committee “Let the People Speak,” led the drive to have the rezoning issue brought to a public vote. She said the committee hired “about six or seven” qualified paid circulators in accordance with state laws and they carried copies of the ordinances.

“All legal descriptions are attached (to the petitions) and no circulator under the age of 18 was allowed to carry a referendum. Not one,” she said. “Everybody had a basic verbiage that this is not anti-Wal-Mart or pro-Wal-Mart. If you are for Wal-Mart or against Wal-Mart, you can sign this petition. What this is, is to bring it to the public vote.”

She added every circulator was a registered voter in the state of Arizona but not necessarily Navajo County.

A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office said that, in general, circulators need to be an eligible elector of Arizona, meaning they just have to be 18-years old and a state resident. They do not have to be a registered voter or live in the district where they circulate the petitions. However, some cities have their own requirements that are more specific. Wetzel said she believes Winslow has the same minimal requirements as the state, but she was still investigating as of Friday.

Residents who signed the petition but changed their minds for whatever reason had until March 24 to remove their names from the petition. Wetzel said there were about 250 signatures on each of the petitions that were filed.

The first of the three petitions was aimed at overturning the City Council’s approval of the first reading of proposed ordinance 963, which allowed the city to rezone the 7.61 acres from Multi-Home/Manufactured Housing to Commercial.

No one spoke publicly for or against the rezoning at the Dec. 16, 2004 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. The City Council approved the first reading or the ordinance without anyone speaking against the rezoning on Jan. 25.

The second petition was filed against the adoption of the ordinance and in case there was a legal challenge to the first because a first reading does not enact an ordinance, it just makes it public.

“We wanted it in on the timeframe from the first reading… because there’s a lot of legal angles on this and we want them all covered,” Gamez said. “That way no matter which one gets kicked out, the other will be legal in standing.”

Let the People Speak took out the third petition pertaining to ordinance 964, which allowed the city to amend its General Plan to coincide with the rezoning.

Let the People Speak is financially backed by United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 99, which represents employees of Bashas’ and Safeway stores among other grocers.

Boles said the referendum was simply a rezoning issue and that it “would not prevent nor encourage a Wal-Mart.”

All-Mail Ballots

City Clerk Suzy Wetzel has until April 14 to verify signatures and forward them to the County Recorder. The Navajo County Recorder’s Office will verify the signatures on the petition as well as the circulators’ validity within 60 days of receiving them. If there were still at least 104 valid signatures on the petitions, then a referendum would be held.

Wetzel said she plans to propose to the Council an all-mail ballot so people do not have to go to a polling place to vote.

“All registered voters are sent a ballot that’s returned in the mail. Other cities that have done that have gotten a much higher voter turnout,” she said.

Mailing the ballots has other advantages too, according to Wetzel. The county has more modernized equipment than Winslow, which relies on hand-counting ballots. That method caused challenges and recounts in the 2004 city election that changed the outcome.

The all-mail ballot would overcome potential problems with Proposition 200 also. As it stands today, Prop 200 requires voters present valid government-issued identification at polling sites. The mailed ballots would only be sent to the 4,281 active registered voters with affidavits the county would be able to verify.

However, mailing the ballots could cost the city an additional $5,000 over the cost of hosting polling sites.

“In the past, they (on-site elections) have been eight to ten thousand dollars,” Wetzel said. “So I’m thinking ten to fifteen thousand dollars (for all-mail) and that’s a very rough estimate.

“We are, however, looking into the prospect of having the county run the election and I’m not sure what the cost difference is going to be on that.”

Gamez, who is circulating petitions to recall Boles and three Council members, said that only registered voters in Winslow are carrying those petitions. She has not turned in the recall petitions but has until May 17.

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