Reno and Carson City both face petition issues

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Carson City has its Fuji Park. Reno has its train trench.

In both cases, residents are challenging whether their city leaders know best. They want voters to decide, but in both cities the leaders are claiming it isn't a decision for their constituents to make.

"It's been very evident that elected officials have not paid heed to any of the warnings and concerns of the citizens of this community in relation to this project," said Michael Tracy, director of Reno's Citizens for a Public Train Trench Vote. "We don't want them to spend our tax money to fight us, and that's what they're doing."

On their faces, the two petitions appear similar. Both request an ordinance -- Carson's to preserve forever Fuji Park and Fairgrounds, Reno's trying to derail construction of a depressed train trench through downtown.

Both petitions garnered enough support to, at least by state law definitions, make it on the ballot. Around 11,000 signatures helped certify the Reno petition, and 3,400 signatures in Carson City met the requirement for 15 percent of registered voters from the last election.

In both cities, the petitions have been challenged as interfering in state-granted administrative powers, which are beyond the influence of initiative petitions.

And that's about where the similarities end.

Kevin Powers, state principal deputy legislative counsel, said discerning between administrative issues and legislative ones, which are influenced by initative petitions, "is definitely a gray area."

Court cases are often decided not on previous case law, but on the facts of the issue itself.

The Concerned Citizens to Save Fuji Park and the Fairgrounds have lobbied over a year for city leaders to preserve from commercial development the park and fairgrounds, which are sandwiched between Costco and the soon-to-open Super Wal-Mart in Douglas County. Citing it as a prime development location, city leaders have worked to find relocation sites for the fairgrounds while committing to improve and preserve Fuji Park.

However, in light of the initative petition, Carson leaders put their plans for sale and development of the property on hold in favor of an advisory vote. Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Forsberg has argued the city's right to sell property is granted by the state and is immune from the initiative petition process.

The Reno City Council is well down the road to construction of a 2.1-mile, $231 million trench through downtown. Information from the Reno ReTRAC project touts the trench as a way to alleviate downtown traffic congestion aggravated by the constant flow of train traffic, which is anticipated to increase with improvements to Union Pacific's Oakland base.

The project is funded from a variety of sources, including room and sales taxes. Tracy argues there is no real need for the trench when money could be better spent improving public safety, roads and parks.

Randall Edwards, Reno's chief deputy city attorney, argues the trench petition, if allowed to go to the ballot, would kill the train trench project. If construction on the trench doesn't start by the end of the year, Union Pacific will pull $60 million in funding, which could put in jeopardy bonding for the project.

"It's do or die for Reno right now," he said. "It's not necessarily do or die for Carson City. There are still avenues the opponents can pursue to bring about the result they want. In Reno, we don't have that. If it goes to a public vote, and the voters vote against it, that's it, even if it's an illegal petition."

District Judge Michael Griffin ordered Carson City officials to place on the ballot the Concerned Citizen's question, noting the initiative petition process should be regarded with respect despite questions about the legality of the question. Let voters decide and then work it out in court, the judge said.

Carson City is asking the Supreme Court to prevent Clerk Alan Glover from placing the park-fairground issue on the ballot.

Edwards said Reno officials don't have the luxury of time, and fighting the petition's legality after a public vote would be a "hollow victory." He said the city is clearly operating "on an existing public works project" within the bounds of state-granted administrative authority.

Reno officials have the support of the state Legislative Counsel Bureau, though. Powers said because the state has a policy that a portion of Reno's room taxes support construction of the trench, the petition would interfere with the city carrying out an administrative state policy. Edwards is hopeful, if the Reno City Council agrees to ask for a court opinion on the trench petition, that a judge would offer a speedy decision.

Carson City supervisors hope for a decision from the Supreme Court before the middle of July so they can decide which of two conflicting questions they will place on the ballot.

Concerned Citizen's proposed ordinance:

"Fuji Park and Carson City Fairgrounds be maintained and improved in not less than its present size as a park in perpetuity."

Reno's Citizen's for a Public Train Trench Vote

"The City of Reno shall not construct a depressed trainway ("train trench") within the existing railroad right of way through the central portion of the City of Reno."


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