The Utah League of Cities and Towns has followed with interest the Cottonwood Mall redevelopment project approval and subsequent challenge by petitioners. We applaud Holladay’s elected officials for following state law and local ordinance through this contentious matter. Holladay, like many of Utah’s cities and towns, is in the challenging position of responding to and planning for remarkable economic and population growth while also trying to remain true to its unique identity.
We recognize that Holladay residents are frustrated that the city’s determination of administrative action came after organizers had gathered signatures for a ballot referendum. The unfortunate reality is that state law dictates this seemingly backwards order of operations, resulting in a great deal frustration for cities and petitioners alike. After referendum sponsors alert the city that they will be challenging a city’s action, state law prohibits the city from communicating with its residents as to why the decision was made and what it does. Petitioners are then forced to spend a great deal of time, money, and effort gathering the required number of signatures before the city is permitted to issue a decision on whether the challenged action was administrative or legislative. While elected officials have legislative authority, that power also rests with the people, who are entitled under the constitution to vote on whether their government should enact certain laws. Administrative decisions, however, are solely a function of the executive branch. Therefore, legislative decisions can be referred but administrative decisions cannot – and this is not an arbitrary determination; it is one that is guided by the state constitution and case law. A city must follow the constitution and legal precedent to make that determination.
ULCT has supported common-sense changes to the local referendum process over the past several years, including HB 225 during the 2018 General Session, sponsored by Rep. Brad Daw. HB 225 did not pass, but it would have required, among other things, a City to issue the legal determination and financial impact statement before petitioners spend time and money collecting signatures to refer an action that a city determines is not referrable. If petitioners disagree with that determination, they would get an expedited review in court. This process would have prevented much of the frustration we see today in Holladay. The city would have been permitted to alert petitioners right away that its actions were administrative in nature, and petitioners could have immediately challenged that determination in court instead of first having to spend time and money collecting signatures only to then be in the position of pursuing court review.
As our state faces exponential population growth, residents and the local leaders they elected will be forced to grapple with these tough decisions more and more often. How our communities grow and change is an emotional and difficult process, and it will require us all to work together and adapt to Utah’s changing landscape. ULCT will continue to advocate for improvements to the referendum process to make it fairer for both residents and the local government officials they elected to lead their communities into the future.