1/14/10 P-D: “Festus, Arnold hit snags on getting voter input”

This recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch report by Christine Byers shows once again the interest in surrounding communities generated by last year’s major legislative gains in the smoke-free air arena.

Most of this story is about the red light camera controversy in Arnold, where a group of residents called Don’t Tread on Me presented a petition for an advisory referendum, which state law prevents in third- and fourth-class cities.

The final paragraph mentions a Festus survey relating to secondhand smoke in which 72% favored smoke-free workplaces. That prompted Councilman Sam Richards to express optimism that the new council will move forward on this issue after the April elections without a formal referendum.

One would hope so. Would the city be conducting a public survey in their community if they had tainted water supplies? Obviously not. So why delay acting on the issue of secondhand smoke? Let’s hope the new council is sufficiently enlightened to act following the April elections, if not before.

Bill Hannegan is first to add an on-line comment and argues that the survey is not representative because, in his words, “Less than ten percent of Festus households cared enough about the secondhand smoke issue to fill out and return the survey. No surprise that the few households who did strongly favored a smoking ban.” He goes on argue instead in favor of a Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services survey showing less than 19% of Jefferson County residents favoring such legislation.

Once again, Hannegan is attempting to misdirect the issue. Public health isn’t a popularity contest and it shouldn’t depend on surveys, no matter what they show.

Festus, Arnold hit snags on getting voter input
By Christine Byers

Festus City Council members could ban smoking in city restaurants, but first they want to know what voters think.

Arnold’s city leaders are wrestling over the future of the red light cameras that document illegal turns at several intersections, and they want voter input.

The problem is Festus and Arnold are third-class cities, and state law does not allow them to poll voters on election ballots with the intent to change or keep existing laws based on the outcome, said Stephen Ables, assistant director of the St. Louis County Municipal League.

“Without the law, it would be like the town hall meetings in New England where everyone votes on everything,” Ables said.

Third- and fourth-class cities had smaller populations and were less professionally managed when the state laws governing them were enacted, Ables said.

Festus leaders backed off the referendum idea after hearing from their city attorney.

But tonight could mark the second attempt in Arnold to win support for a ballot question on the cameras.

City Councilman Matt Hay has put an item on tonight’s agenda seeking council approval to ask voters: “Shall the city of Arnold continue to have red light cameras monitoring traffic within the city of Arnold?”

In 2006, Arnold became the first city in Missouri to begin using cameras to catch drivers who run red lights.

A federal lawsuit filed against the city in 2008 alleged that the tickets are illegal and an unconstitutional violation of drivers’ civil rights. Ultimately, a federal judge dismissed the challenge.

Arnold’s contract with American Traffic Solutions, which provides the cameras, expires in December. The council cannot remove the cameras until then, Hay said.

Last January, a group of residents called Don’t Tread on Me presented a petition with about 900 signatures of residents who wanted an advisory referendum. The council tabled the discussion.

Then in August, Arnold’s city attorney at the time, Bob Sweeney, warned the council that it could be putting the city at risk for a lawsuit if it put the question on the ballot. The council fired him in December.

In a memo dated Jan. 4, the city’s new city attorney, Dennis Tesreau, echoed Sweeney’s opinion.

“It is my belief that the city of Arnold could pass a resolution placing this issue before the voters. … However, a lawsuit could potentially be filed against the city of Arnold claiming that the city of Arnold has no authority to place that issue before the voters even in this nonbinding fashion. That could cause additional expenses, costs and legal fees in defending such a suit.”

Hay said that while no law authorizes cities like Arnold to conduct advisory referendums, neither does any law prohibit it.

“There is no monetary risk to the city by putting this before the voters,” Hay said.

Mayor Ron Counts said he won’t support the resolution because of Tesreau’s opinion but said he agrees with the need to seek public input on the issue.

Councilman Randy Crisler called the ballot effort “ridiculous.”

“Just because you get rid of an attorney doesn’t mean you get rid of the statute,” he said.

But state Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, has proposed a measure to do just that. He prefiled a bill in December proposing that the Legislature grant third- and fourth-class cities the power of referendums. Previous efforts to do so have failed.

Festus, meanwhile, turned to a survey of residents by the Jefferson County Health Department. Councilman Sam Richards said the survey, showing 72 percent in favor of smoke-free workplaces, was enough of a referendum on public opinion. He hopes the new council elected in April will agree.

2 responses to “1/14/10 P-D: “Festus, Arnold hit snags on getting voter input”

  1. The Mayor and Council were elected to run the business of the city, not the city’s businesses.

    • A nice slogan but misleading. When the city laws for the safe conduct of businesses they are merely doing their job of safeguarding the public health and welfare, as well as that of the employees.

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