How did you spend your day at work today? I had a few meetings, caught up on some e-mails, made plans for some projects for the rest of the year.
Almost certainly, I had a better day at the office than Sioux Falls City Clerk Lorie Hogstad or the rest of the folks working in her office. A little over a week ago, Hogstad and her crew received a written challenge to more than 2,000 of the signatures collected for a public referendum of the Sioux Falls City Council's decision to rezone land at the corner of 85th Street and Minnesota Avenue. That zoning decision, as it currently stands, paves the way for construction of a Walmart Supercenter on the Lincoln County land, currently owned by the Homan family. The referendum petition—with 6,362 signatures—was filed August 30 by a group called Save Our Neighborhood, but the Homans and Walmart argue that Save Our Neighborhood didn't manage to appropriately cross their t's and dot their i's while they were bugging would-be signatories at Canaries stadium.
So, for the last week, and Hogstad estimates for the next couple of weeks or more, the City Clerk's office will be inspecting and crafting a written response to each challenged signature. Ready to trade jobs with any of these city employees?
In keeping with their general approach to this whole process, Save Our Neighborhood doesn't choose the noble argument. They don't say, "We have nothing to be concerned about. Let Clerk Hogstad use her finest-toothed comb; she'll still find enough signatures to take this to a vote." Nope. They go this direction:
Dana Palmer, a spokeswoman for Save Our Neighborhood, said the action by Walmart is not surprising but that it is discouraging because it’s an effort to block the chance to settle the issue in an election.
“They’re trying to squelch the public’s right to have a voice in this matter,” Palmer said in a phone interview. “Walmart doesn’t want to hear from the public.”
Palmer said she is encouraged by recent rulings that have allowed for leniency in the petition process.
“You have to let the public voice be heard," she said [Jon Walker, "Walmart disputes 2,084 signatures in petition; family that owns land issues statement," That Sioux Falls Paper, 2013.09.10].
Yes, let's ignore the allegations of signatures without any printed name, of pages lacking notary verification, of names that don't show up on any registration lists. It's not, of course, Save Our Neighborhood's fault for potentially making errors in its petition drive. It's Walmart's fault for pointing out those potential errors. Now, it might be worth a pat on the back for Save Our Neighborhood for avoiding their typical persecution-complex rhetoric ... if their spokesperson wasn't so busy superficially donning the cloak of the "public voice" for a very personal crusade that leans pretty heavily on the "MY" part of "Not In My Back Yard."
Justification for Palmer's optimism about "leniency" is provided in part by the specific wording of SDCL 2-1-11:
The petitions herein provided for shall be liberally construed, so that the real intention of the petitioners may not be defeated by a mere technicality. (This would appear to hold true to city petitions, as well, based on the Sioux Falls City Charter's "Initiative and referendum" section)
I can't help but get a little uneasy, however, at "liberal[ly] constru[ing]" petition signatures when a "mere technicality" refers, quite simply, to not following instructions, in this case, not following South Dakota Codified Law.
Where's the line for what constitutes a "mere technicality?" Left a notary seal off one page, no biggie? What about 2? 3? Forgot the printed name and can't read the signature, toss it? No printed name, but tidy handwriting, keep it?
Judge Mark Barnett's ruling on the nomination petition issues District 8 (not just "Lake County") Democrat Charlie Johnson ran into getting on last November's ballot might just provide some of the legal interpretation Palmer groups under the category of "recent rulings" supporting giving leeway for Save Our Neighborhood's possible errors. Johnson's petitions mis-identified the jurisdiction (listing the county rather than the legislative district) on one of the lines at the top of the form, but Barnett ruled that this "substantially complied" with election law. Still, I'm not convinced an error like the one on Johnson's petitions is equal to the errors alleged with these referendum petitions.
Based on the logic of Barnett's ruling, Lorie Hogstad may not be in a place to make a decision about whether such errors are equivalent, either:
In Monday's hearing, the judge said Gant acted properly when he rejected Johnson's nominating petition because the state's top election officer must strictly apply the laws and rules.
However, South Dakota and prior court rulings have given the courts authority to decide whether nominating petitions substantially comply with laws and rules, Barnett said. The law is supposed to be interpreted liberally to let voters decide races, he said [Chet Brokaw, "SD Judge: Democratic candidate can be on ballot," Real Clear Politics, 2012.05.21, emphasis my own]
Thus, it may be time for Walmart backers and opponents to prepare for some fun in court if the City Clerk's office does its job with strict application and in doing so invalidates enough signatures to take the petition below the roughly 5,100-person threshold for the referendum to make it on the ballot. That probably suits Save Our Neighborhood just fine; they seem to like talking about law suits an awful lot.
To be clear, I'm not by any means the biggest Walmart fan in the world. I'd love to tell Walmart to stop building any big-box, anti-living wage, anti-local business Supercenters in this—or any—state and go sit on a tack while they're at it. But, if we're going to stick it to Walmart, I'd really rather see us do it by increasing South Dakota's minimum wage than by giving a pass to shoddy direction-following on questionably-motivated petitions.