SHERIDAN — City staff briefed Sheridan City Council on the policies that govern special elections this week in light of a petition seeking to trigger a public referendum on a recently-passed charter ordinance that has been circulating the community.

Last month, city residents began circulating a petition that aims to challenge council’s approval of Charter Ordinance 2202, which was designed to clarify the city statutes that created Sheridan’s city administrator position.

Mayor Roger Miller, and the citizens challenging CO2202, have called on council to eliminate the city administrator position outright and have described the petition as a symbolic means of urging city councilors to do just that.

Council approved CO2202 on third reading in July with a 6-1 vote; Miller was the sole dissenting vote.

As of Friday afternoon, Sheridan City Clerk Cecilia Good said the petition has not been submitted to her office. If the petition is successful, though, Sheridan city attorney Brendon Kerns said the city would have to work quickly.

“We don’t know if this issue is actually going to be something that council is going to have to address,” Kerns said. “But we have to be prepared.”
 
What would the petition do?
While both Miller and the residents circulating the petition want Sheridan to eliminate its city administrator position, they will not be able to achieve that goal — at least not directly — by petitioning CO2202.

Sheridan created the city administrator position with the passage of Charter Ordinance 2158 in 2015. Residents submitted a petition to the city in an attempt to oppose that ordinance, but city staff determined the petition did not have the requisite number of verified signatures.

CO2202 was essentially a revision, or update, to CO2158 — it cleared up some inconsistencies with state statutes and clarified the duties of both the mayor and the city administrator but left the original ordinance on the books.

If citizens repeal CO2202, then, CO2158 would remain in effect.

Both Miller and the petitioners have said they hope a successful petition will communicate public dissatisfaction with city administrator position to city councilors and urge them to reconsider the issue.

“If the people do vote on it and they find in opposition of this council, this council should very seriously take that into consideration and highly consider repealing CO2158,” Miller said Tuesday.

Councilors would have no official obligation to accept that interpretation, however.

Petition process
Under Article 13C of the Wyoming Constitution, residents of a city have the right to challenge their city government’s adoption of a new charter ordinance through a public referendum.

Per the statute, initiating a referendum requires residents to submit a petition challenging the ordinance that contains a number of verified signatures equal to at least 10% of the city’s voter turnout in its most recent general election before the ordinance takes effect.

A successful petition of CO2202 would have to include at least 642 verified signatures, Kerns said.

Council approved CO2202 on third reading in July. Under the Wyoming statute, a new charter ordinance cannot take effect until the 60th day after the ordinance’s second publication in a local newspaper.

City residents have that 60-day window to organize and submit a petition for a public referendum to the city.

The second publication of CO2202 ran in The Sheridan Press July 17, which means CO2202 is scheduled to take effect Sept. 15. That date is a Sunday, however, so Kerns said Sheridan residents will have until the end of the business day Monday, Sept. 16 to file a petition.

The submission of a petition would stop, at least temporarily, the challenged ordinance from becoming a law.

Certifying the petition
Only registered voters who are city residents are eligible to sign the petition, Kerns said. If and when the residents submit the petition to the city, Sheridan’s city clerk would be responsible for ensuring at least 642 of the petition’s signatures belong to eligible voters with residences Sheridan.

Kerns said the term “residences” on its own can be unclear and offered the following working definition:

“A residence is a place of a person’s actual habitation and, if vacant, [to which the person] has the intent to return,” Kerns said.

Sheridan citizens who are students, enrolled in the military or hospitalized are eligible to sign the petition even if they do not have “residences” in the city, Kerns noted.

If the clerk finds signatures that are not from eligible voters, they are not counted, and if enough signatures are discounted that the total number drops below the minimum threshold, the petition dies.

Good said she has obtained the most recent list of registered voters in the city of Sheridan from the Sheridan County clerk and recorder and would simply check whether the names on a submitted petition appeared on that list.

Though it is not required, Kerns and Good said they have also discussed hiring a third party to independently verify the petition and compare its review of the list to Good’s and ensure their conclusions match up.
That would help assure both the public and city staff that the decision regarding the certification of the petition is accurate.

Holding a special election
If city staff verifies the public’s petition, the city is required to hold a special election on the contested charter ordinance no sooner than 30 days after the petition is filed and no later than 90 days after its submission.

City council would be required to pass an ordinance that establishes how the election would be conducted; the ordinance would have to set a date for the election, identify the polling places that would be used and appoint election judges.

Council would have significant flexibility in setting those parameters, Kerns said, which makes estimating what a special election would cost the city difficult; the costs would depend on how the city chooses to operate the election.

If and when the city passes such an ordinance, it cannot take effect until it has been published at least once per week for at least three consecutive weeks — which is why the city has to wait at least 30 days after receiving the petition to hold the special election.

Good noted that the city could pass the ordinance as an “emergency ordinance” to avoid having to consider it on three readings.

With the deadline for the submission of the petition CO2202 fast approaching, the likelihood of the city having to design a special election could become clearer in the coming week.