The Grand County Attorney’s Office has reportedly challenged a determination by the local school district that a recent petition failed. The citizen petition would have put before voters a question regarding bond issuances that would fund construction of a new middle school in Moab.
The school district announced in a press release on Dec. 10 that the petition, submitted on Nov. 26, gathered 1,085 signatures, short of the required 1,095.
The number of signatures required was 20 percent of active voters in the school district, but the number of active voters is subject to change, particularly in the middle of an election.
The Utah law litigating the petition procedure for school bond issuances does not specify when to calculate this signature requirement as the number of voters changes, creating ambiguity in the actual policy.
This year, the number of active voters increased during election time, according to counts from the Grand County Clerk and Recorder’s office. Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder and district business administrator Robert Farnsworth said the signature count requirement rose along with it.
Between the time when petitioners picked up official forms for gathering signatures on Nov. 9, and the time when they submitted those signatures on Nov. 26, the count of active voters in the school district rose by 96, just enough to create a controversy over which count “counts.”
If the school district decided to calculate the required number of signatures based on the count of active voters on Nov. 9, the 1,085 submissions would be above the threshold by nine signatures. In actuality, the school district used the count from Nov. 26, meaning petitioners missed their mark by 10.
According to Tom Lacy, a local resident behind the petition effort, an official with the Grand County Attorney’s Office emailed Lacy said the number of signatures required for the petition to pass was determined unfairly by the school district.
“As a practical matter, the county should choose to calculate the number of active voters as of the date of the notice of intent to gather signatures,” the official said in an email to Lacy.
The official also said that the school district may have inappropriately disallowed petition signatures that were not on official forms and that the number of signatures required might more appropriately be calculated as a percentage of ballots cast in the last presidential election.
WHAT IS AN “ACTIVE” VOTER?
Whether a voter is considered “active” is determined by the Grand County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, currently headed by Diana Carroll, who was also one of the signatories on the school bond funding petition.
After each presidential election, the county clerk designates a voter as “inactive” if that person did not vote in both that year’s general election and the general election four years prior. The county clerk also designates a voter as inactive if the clerk determines that the voter has moved out of the voting precinct. In most other cases, a voter is considered active.
According to Grand County Clerk-elect Chris Baird, who ran unopposed for the seat this year, the number of active voters documented by the clerk’s office changed hourly in the days following the Nov. 6 midterm election; as election officials recorded ballots submitted in the election, voters who were previously considered inactive would become redesignated as active if they voted.
When petitioners picked up official petitions from the county clerk’s office on Nov. 9, officials were already working to finalize results from the election three days prior. At that time, Carroll told Lacy and others behind the petition initiative that the number of active voters was 5,098.
After accounting for the additional 280 active voters in Spanish Valley, which is in San Juan County but is a part of the Grand County School District, petitioners set out to collect the signatures of at least 1,076 active voters in the district.
However, the count of active voters was subject to change until Nov. 20, when election results were due to be finalized. Petitioners returned signatures on their Nov. 26 deadline, by which time the number of active voters in the school district had risen since they picked up the petition two and a half weeks prior.
While the Grand County Clerk and Recorder’s Office oversees elections in Grand County, the Grand County School District is the authority responsive to the petition; the school district has determined that the later count would be used to calculate the signature threshold.
The district school board and its staff are expected to begin the process of issuing bonds to gather the funding for the construction of the new middle school.
According to Farnsworth and Stroder, the school district has a reserve of funds for the capital project, which has been in the works since 2012. They said that these savings are great enough to obviate any additional taxes to fund construction.
As for the matter of which count of active voters is to be used in determining the success or failure of the bond issuance petition, Baird says that is a matter on which the legal system would have the final word, if the matter were to be litigated in court. As of Jan. 1, the petitioners said they are not yet certain as to how they will proceed with the matter.
Resident and petition organizer Dwight Johnston said that when the process of collecting signatures began, they had obtained about 180 signatures when they realized it needed to be completed on “a more formal” petition form, so they started another form. The first petition form with signatures was not certified with the petition that was submitted to the clerk’s office, Johnston said.
Johnston said the petitioners recently talked with the Grand County Attorney’s Office about the approximate 180 signatures on the other form, and said they now believe the signatures on both forms should be counted. If so, that would add 111 additional signatures, putting the effort well above the required number of active voter signatures, he said.
The petitioners collectively said they are not opposed to the school district’s plan to build a new school, but they want the issue to go before the voters first.
“We’ll seek a restraining order from a judge if they don’t pay attention to the voters,” Johnston said. “The ultimate goal is to have the school district let the voters see what they’re doing before they spend $27 million. We’re not trying to stop them from building a new school.”
Johnston said he planned to meet with school district officials during the first week of 2019 to discuss the additional signatures on the other form.