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May 12, 2013

Let voters decide bond issue

MERIDIAN —     Opponents to a proposed $14 million Lauderdale County bond issue to fund recreation projects and courthouse renovations collected 1,554 signatures to force a referendum that would allow county residents to vote on whether or not the bond issue would go forward.

    Organizers needed 1,500 votes by the May 6 meeting of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors in order to call the issue to a vote.

    Normally, petitions are turned over to the Circuit Clerk's Office, which would determine which signatures on the petition are valid and which are not. If 1,500 of the signatures prove valid, the referendum would take place.

    At Monday's board of supervisors meeting, however, Rick Barry, attorney to the Board of Supervisors, recommended that the board approve a motion to hold the petition for two weeks so the signatures could be made public at the Chancery Clerk's Office and online on the county's website.

    The purpose of the two week holding period is to allow anyone who doesn't want their name on the petition to remove it.

    When board member Wayman Newell questioned the two week waiting period, stating that he had never heard of such a thing, Barry said he had only learned that it was possible the week prior after speaking with the county's bond counsel.

    "I've got some concerns about it because the procedure, as I've been told; the chancery clerk is supposed to get the petitions, she presents the petitions to the board and in turn the board presents them to the circuit clerk to verify the names," Newell said at the meeting. "It doesn't say anything about holding it two weeks."

    Newell said he is concerned someone might attempt to use the two-week period to influence people who signed the petition to change their minds.

    We too have concerns.

    First of all, why deviate from the normal procedure? If 1,500 of the signatures on the petition are deemed valid, let the election take place.

    Board President Hank Florey said at the meeting he has heard indirectly that some people want their names removed from the petition.

    In response to news articles on the bond issue, some commenters to online articles stated they would have signed the petition calling for a county-wide vote had they known it was being circulated.

    Will they be given that opportunity? Apparently not. According to an Attorney General's opinion and a spokesperson for the Secretary of State, although people can have their names removed from a petition, new names cannot be added.

    That hardly seems fair.

    The proposed $14 million bond issue would pay for the construction of a $3.8 million sports complex at Highland Park; $3.5 million and $2.5 million respectively for recreational facilities in West Lauderdale and Clarkdale; and $4.2 million in improvements to the county courthouse.

    As we have stated in a previous editorial, we don't dislike the projects on which the county is proposing to spend the money. The courthouse is in very poor shape and providing youths more recreational opportunities is commendable.

    But we did question the board's approval of a resolution of intent to pass the $14 million bond issue without discussing the issue first in a board work session where county residents could weigh in on the issue.

    After all, county taxpayers will be responsible for paying off the bonds if approved and should be allowed input during the process.

    Similarly, if there are 1,500 or more valid signatures on the original petition calling for a vote on the issue, a voter referendum should take place.

    Whether the bond issue is voted up or down is of no concern to us. The issue is one of allowing county residents to be part of the decision process.  

    It is taxpayers' money after all.

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