The state Appeals Court Thursday overturned a lower court ruling and cleared the way for a November election to determine whether Payson should lease five acres of land in Rumsey Park to the Valley of the Sun YMCA.
The three-judge panel ruled that the paperwork problems on forms filed by the citizen’s committee that gathered 1,500 referendum signatures didn’t confuse or deceive voters and therefore shouldn’t invalidate the otherwise valid signatures, wrote Chief Judge John Pelander in a decision released at 4:40 Thursday afternoon.
The last minute decision clears the way for a mail-in ballot to decide whether the town should give the Valley of the Sun YMCA a long-term lease of the parkland and existing Taylor Pool.
The YMCA offered to raise money to build a $5.6-million pool, gym and fitness center complex and to turn Taylor Pool into a year-round facility. The YMCA would pay $10,000 a year in rent and continue to offer summer public swim hours, saving the town $130,000 annually.
Town Attorney Sam Streichman said “We are going to have an election in November – the right to vote has been maintained in the town of Payson.”
Payson Council members also praised the ruling, although it could mean the voters will overturn a decision strongly supported by the town council.
“I don’t know how the election will turn out,” said Vice Mayor Su Connell, “but I’m glad the people will have a chance to speak.”
Councilor John Wilson said “We all hope the voters approve it overwhelmingly, then get out their checkbooks” to donate money to the YMCA’s fundraising drive. He said he hopes the $40,000 special election will demonstrate public support for the project. He said if the public doesn’t support the plan “it isn’t going to happen.”
The Appeals Court decision is the latest twist in a long saga.
Town officials spent nearly two years in negotiations with the YMCA before accepting a smaller gym and dropping a hoped-for senior center and agreeing to the 30-year lease of a chunk of land centered on the existing Taylor Pool. The town had originally hoped to control the entire facility for 30 to 40 percent of the time, but ultimately dropped that request to save money.
The resulting deal would have net the town $140,000 annually in income and savings, while bringing to town a recreation center with family rates of $35 to $75 monthly and offering nearly the same summer swim hours in an expanded facility.
The town council approved nearly final negotiating points outlining the deal on July 2.
However, critics of the use of public land for the non-profit, youth-oriented organization then formed a group called the Friends of Payson and quickly gathered 1,500 signatures on a referendum that could overturn the council’s action.
But then A former YMCA official who lives in Payson, Gile Sievers, filed a lawsuit to block the election, citing mistakes on the paperwork establishing Friends of Payson. State law requires groups formed to push a ballot measure to include their position on that measure in their name. Not only did Friends of Payson pick an essentially illegal name, organizers checked the wrong box on the application form – saying they opposed the initiative when they actually supported it.
The Superior Court judge ruled that these mistakes clearly violated a state law intended to make sure voters could tell who was supporting which initiative. The judge ruled that the only remedy available to him for that violation of law was to throw out the petitions gathered by the group.
However, the three-judge appeals panel sharply disagreed.
The nine-page opinion sorted through various legal precedents and assorted sections of the statute on forming political committees and gathering signatures and concluded the mistakes on the paperwork didn’t invalidate the petitions because they didn’t confuse voters.
The court quoted the statement from the Friends of Payson’s legal brief stating the referendum “was fine in all other respects save one. There are no allegations that the petitions were circulated improperly, that the form of the petition was flawed or that none other than the requisite amount of registered voters signed the petition. So what did that one error do in a real and practical sense? Nothing.”