During a formal hearing Tuesday, local citizens acknowledged that they made mistakes during the process of circulating petitions for a referendum vote regarding the Haymeadow development.
However, they adamantly contended that the mistakes were minor and throwing out their petitions would thwart the desire expressed by Eagle residents to cast votes regarding the development’s future.
“We are amateurs. We made mistakes,” said Rosie Shearwood, one of the organizers behind the Haymeadow referendum. But Shearwood said fundamental premise of the petition drive is that local residents want to personally weigh in on the Haymeadow issue. She appealed to the hearing officer, retired judge Sheryl Post, to let the vote proceed rather than overturn the petition drive because oversights made by the citizen organizers.
Last week the town of Eagle received a formal protest from resident Charles A. Hair alleging that the petition process for a citizen referendum regarding the Haymeadow development did not comply with state statute. With that protest in hand, the town had 10 days from May 27 to name a hearing officer and conduct a formal hearing to determine whether the petitions are valid. The town board named Post and set the hearing day for June 3.
Haymeadow, a 837-unit residential development proposed at the 660-acre parcel located just south of the Eagle Pool and Ice Rink property, is slated to go to a referendum vote because the town received petitions containing 373 signatures calling for a citizen referendum for the project. Eagle Town Clerk Sarah Braucht certified that 310 of the signatures were valid, exceeding the threshold of 214 valid signatures required to refer the issue to a municipal election. The Eagle Town Board approved the Haymeadow proposal in a 6-1 vote on March 25.
However, as part of a referendum process, there is a protest period during which a citizen can question whether the petition process followed state law. In his formal protest, Hair cited six points that he alleged violate the rules. His protest covers issues ranging from technicalities laid out in state statute detailing the specific form for petitions and their accompanying affidavits, to questions about the propriety of a document titled “Haymeadow: Why to vote for a better plan for Eagle” that was carried by the petition circulators.
Tuesday’s hearing revealed the case was not an argument of fact, but rather one of interpretation. For instance, one of Hair’s contentions is that the addresses of the circulators were not included on the petition form, as required by statute. The petition drive organizers concede this issue is true, but maintain it was a harmless error that did not affect the collection of signatures.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearings, Post clearly noted her ruling would not address the validity of the Haymeadow plan. She noted she will be looking at state statute, which clearly states actions “shall” be done in the case of referendum petitioning and weighing that against existing case law which has upheld a more lenient “substantial compliance” standard.
“This is not a question of the people or their good-heartedness, on either side,” said Post.
Contacted Tuesday, Hair said he had two motivations to submit his formal protest of the Haymeadow petitions. Hair is being represented by attorney Brett Heckman in making his complaint.
“I didn’t think the petition gathering was done to the letter of the law,” said Hair, “and I felt this project was too important to have doubt play a part in the outcome.”
Hair said he was particularly upset by the “Haymeadow: Why to vote for a better plan for Eagle” literature that was carried by the petition circulators. He said there were many falsehoods contained in the information, and that was the focus of testimony on Tuesday. Under oath, Haymeadow planner Rick Pylman cited several instances where the literature was incorrect or misleading.
In discussion of Tuesday’s hearing, Eagle Town Attorney Ed Sands noted he is unaware of case law regarding the issue of whether or not circulators can carry propaganda materials as part of their petition packages.
“It’s an interesting legal issue in my mind,” said Sands. “The circulators had the propaganda materials with them, but is that tantamount to being included in the petition?”
In his closing arguments, Heckman argued the “Haymeadow: Why to vote for a better plan for Eagle” information was misleading and intended to confuse people who were asked to sign the petitions. “The first thing that someone sees and the last thing that someone sees resonates with them,” Heckman said. He argued that for many people, the document was the last thing they saw before being asked to sign the petition.
Heckman noted he couldn’t say if every person who signed a petition read the document, but argued that testimony during the hearing demonstrated that everyone who circulated a petition was given a copy.
“The petition process itself was flawed,” Heckman said. “It just can’t be done like this.”
But whether the judge agrees with Heckman’s argument remains to be seen.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing, Post opted to take the issue under advisement. She now has five days to produce a written ruling either upholding Hair’s challenge and nullifying the referendum or denying the challenge so the vote can proceed. If she rules in favor of the petition effort, the protest period ends June 9 and the town board can set the election date June 10.
If the judge rules in favor of the protest, the only recourse the petition circulators would have is to file a protest in district court.