Stopping what stopped ‘Stop the Trench’

A bill that would make it illegal for local governments to challenge citizen initiative petitions has made it out of an Assembly committee. Authored by former Assemblywoman Vivian Freeman, AB 292 aims to prevent the sort of action taken by the city of Reno against last year’s “Stop the Trench” petition, in which a citizen coalition sought signatures to prevent the construction of a railroad trench through downtown. Because of the city’s challenge, the anti-ReTrac petition never made it onto last November’s Reno ballot.

“[Petitioners] were betrayed by the legal system in Reno and in the state of Nevada,” said Freeman. “It’s no wonder that people no longer trust the government.” She predicts that the bill, with 25 co-sponsors, will pass the Assembly.

The city of Reno opposes Freeman’s legislation.

“Once you get past ReTrac and get down to the principle of it, I think it’s a fairly easy call,” said Deputy City Attorney Randall Edwards. He argues that a local government not only has the right but also the duty to challenge unconstitutional citizen petitions. “Unconstitutional petitions do happen,” he said.

The city took the position that the anti-ReTrac petition was unconstitutional because it addressed the government’s administrative concerns instead of its legislative concerns. Citizen petitions can by law challenge only legislative actions. District Judge James Hardesty and the Nevada Supreme Court agreed with the city’s argument that how it operates on an administrative level isn’t subject to citizen petition.

At issue was the fact that the petition specified a route that the city could not use for the railroad trench. This was administrative micromanagement, argued the city’s lawyers. The court agreed, burying the “Stop the Trench” initiative.

A similar lawsuit in Carson City involved citizens petitioning to prevent the building of an industrial park on a particular piece of property. In that case, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in favor of the local government, saying that citizens couldn’t designate specific uses for a specific piece of property.

In both cases, many citizens felt betrayed by their local governments. And in both cases, petitioners felt the government and the courts had ignored the spirit of the initiatives, providing only a narrow interpretation of the language involved.

“We played by the rules,” said William Puchert, former advocate of the anti-ReTrac petition and a former RN&R contributor. “The initiative petition process is where citizens have access to government. It’s arrogant for the government to rationalize why they can sue their own citizens. I went through the process, and I was disgusted by the actions of my city government.”

Puchert said the Freeman bill attempts to “level the playing field.”

Puchert testified in favor of AB 292 before the Assembly Elections and Procedures Committee. Committee members expressed bipartisan support for the bill and skepticism toward the city’s position that a local government has the right to sue its citizens during the initiative process. According to various accounts, committee members “grilled” and even “crucified” Edwards, who spoke on behalf of the city of Reno against the legislation.

The bill could face an uphill battle in the Senate, however.