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Petition to preserve voters' rights certified

Staff writer

Marion voters deserve a say in how the city pays for improvements, a current city council member and a former mayor stressed Tuesday.

Peggy Blackman, who was mayor from 1977 to 1986, signed a petition opposing a charter ordinance that would allow new city borrowing without voter approval.

When she was mayor, voters approved a $500,000 bond issue for water supply.

“We got out and sold it to the public,” she said.

The charter ordinance “would give the council carte blanche,” and that’s not how cities should operate, Blackman said.

“That’s not how we handled it,” she said.

County clerk Tina Spencer said in an Oct. 10 letter to city clerk Tiffany Jeffrey that 79 registered voters — including 59 who had voted in the last city general election — signed the petition filed by planning and zoning commission member Darvin Markley. Spencer deemed the petition valid.

Under the Kansas Constitution, the ordinance now cannot take effect unless voters approve it at a special referendum conducted in the manner of a normal municipal election.

Council members passed the ordinance July 25. If approved at the as-yet-unscheduled referendum, it would allow Marion to circumvent state law. Ruth Herbel voted against the ordinance.

Herbel was “very happy” the petition succeeded.

“I just don’t think the council has the right to take power away from the people,” she said.

Marion residents, she said, have supported city, county and school bond projects.

“We’re not against spending money,” she said.

Gilmore Bell, a company that charges the city to sell its bonds, wrote the ordinance for Marion.

Statutes specify that bonds for public improvement may be issued after a city engineer has developed a master plan for development and the borrowing is approved in a referendum.

The charter ordinance — No. 22 — would allow elimination of voting and would specify that a master plan be submitted by a city administrator, not an engineer.

The ordinance also would allow the city to borrow not just for improvements but to acquire land not already part of the city and to purchase vehicles or other personal property for use related to improvements.

The ordinance would allow the city to pass a resolution by simple majority specifying the amount and purpose of bonds. A two-thirds super-majority would not be required.

At the time of the vote, city officials had been discussing issuing $1.875 million in bonds to be paid with money from a 0.75% sales tax. That tax, imposed 21 years ago to pay for industrial park improvements, instead was used for other purposes, including paying for an economic development director.

Of the bond money, $850,000 would be used for the industrial park. The rest of the new borrowing would pay for 10 city blocks of street work.

State Sen. Richard Wilborn said voter approval was important, though he added he had not read the charter ordinance.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate of giving voters a choice,” he said. There may be cases when the dollar amount is small enough to warrant elected officials signing off on borrowing — but in general, voters should have a say.”

Mitch Walter, an attorney for Gilmore Bell’s Wichita office, said the firm’s job “as bond counsel was to provide cities with different options for financial planning.”

Many ways of paying for improvements don’t require voter approval, he said.

The issue of whether to approve the charter ordinance cannot be added to the Nov. 8 ballot, which already is set.

Last modified Oct. 13, 2022

 

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