The court should overturn the planned special election on Payson's plan to lease five acres of park land to the Valley of the Sun YMCA for a $5.6-million recreational center, according to a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.
Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill ordered an Aug. 15 hearing on the increasingly complicated legal dispute after a hastily called scheduling conference on Thursday.
The lawsuit claims the citizen's group that gathered some 1,500 signatures seeking a vote on the YMCA project under the name "Friends of Payson" had an illegally misleading name and failed to fill out its paperwork properly.
The lawsuit was filed by Payson resident Gile E. Sievers, on behalf of a citizen's group headed by Payson School Board member Rory Huff and backed by the nonprofit Valley of Sun YMCA. Sievers is a former YMCA official.
The scheduling hearing drew a bevy of town officials, who found themselves in the curious position of defending the legality of petitions filed to overturn a 6-1 council vote on July 2. The challenged resolution approved the near-final negotiating points for a plan to build a year-round swimming pool, gymnasium, teen center, rock climbing wall and fitness center on about five acres of town-owned land in Rumsey Park, which would include remodeling and enclosing the current Taylor Pool.
The town has not formally approved any lease agreement with YMCA representatives.
The petition by the pro-YMCA group claimed the name "Friends of Payson" would befuddle voters and signature gatherers who might confuse it with the Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation, which has long favored the YMCA facility. Moreover, the paperwork forming the political committee used the wrong numbers for the referendum and checked the wrong box to indicate whether it supported or opposed the referendum, according to the lawsuit.
Even before the group turned in the signatures, the Payson council had adopted an emergency ordinance to make sure a special election on the subject could take place on the same day as the general election in November. That mail-in special election would cost an estimated $40,000.
It's unclear now whether the anti-YMCA forces could legally launch a new petition drive to block the lease of town land to the nonprofit group in the event the court throws out the original petitions.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans reacted with anger to the lawsuit, saying that even though he largely supports the proposed arrangement with the YMCA, he also has pushed hard to make sure that people had a chance to vote on the issue. Otherwise, "we wouldn't have jumped through all the hoops we've jumped through to give the people an opportunity to vote," he said.
Evans said he has called a special executive session meeting of the council for Monday morning to discuss the town's options -- including whether the council itself could call a special election if the petitions are thrown out.
Vickie Lucas, who with a friend launched the petition drive, said she feels caught somewhere between "despair and fury." She said her group has $111 in the bank and can't afford to hire an attorney to defend the legality of the petitions, and worries the town will put up little or no defense, given the views of the council.
"If the town does agree to contest this, I will be delighted. I think a lot of the citizens that are so opposed to that use of park land will have trust restored in the council members. In retrospect, I am feeling really guilty. We should have come up with enough money to hire lawyers to see us through the filing and the paperwork phase."
Cameron Carter, a Scottsdale-based lawyer who has served as a spokesman for the YMCA, confirmed the YMCA has been working with the local citizens group to overturn the petitions.
"The project is something that is needed in the community and many people support it. The weight of support for this project by the community and the council and the town staff says this is a project that needs to move forward."
The lawsuit raises several thorny issues. The state law governing referendums attempts to make sure voters understand who's seeking their signature and where they get their support.
Therefore, the state law specifically requires the names of organizations to clearly indicate their position and also requires the people who form a committee to indicate which side they're on.
Lucas said that in this case, she just liked the name "Friends of Payson," and it never crossed her mind that people would confuse it with the existing group that originally asked the YMCA to build a facility in Payson.
Moreover, she said she simply got confused about which box to check -- thinking that it was asking whether the group supported the YMCA proposal, rather than whether it supported the referendum that would derail that proposal.
"It was much more complicated than I expected," she said.
"And I am very sorry for not having the foresight" to ask a lawyer to review the petitions and paperwork. "I feel very badly that so many people came out in support and were so enthusiastic about the project -- and a technicality screwed us up."
One key point remains unclear: If a judge throws out the petitions, can the anti-YMCA group launch another petition drive if the council actually approves a lease?
Lucas said she'd been told that approval of the lease would be a "legislative" action, not subject to referendum, but wasn't sure.
The Payson town attorney declined any comment on the referendum law, in view of the pending lawsuit.
Carter, the attorney for the YMCA, said he wasn't sure what sorts of council actions were subject to referendums, but any referendum had to be "timely."
The deadline has passed for filing a fresh set of signatures on the council's adoption of the negotiating points, therefore a referendum on the same question months from now when the council considers the actual lease might not be "timely."
Mayor Evans agreed that only certain types of council actions are subject to a referendum, but that "you're asking someone who has only been mayor for two months."
He said a Payson group had tried to file a referendum to block the drilling of the Tower Well in neighboring Star Valley, but the courts threw out that effort because too much time had passed between the original vote and the petition drive. He said a number of people involved in that effort seem to be involved in this effort as well.
Evans said the 1,500 signatures on those petitions "indicates a substantial desire on the part of the community to have a say" on whether the town leases park land to the YMCA.
"I would look at any option that would give the average citizen an opportunity to express their opinion."