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LAWRENCE LEADING PETITION DRIVE AGAINST COMBINING 2 OFFICES

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A group led by a dissident county commissioner has filed a petition to call a special election to overturn the county's decision last month to consolidate the posts of county auditor and county clerk.

Commissioner William "Dub" Lawrence and four other county residents filed the petition last week calling for a referendum vote in November 1990 - the same election date when voters are scheduled to choose the first official to fill the combined post.Lawrence voted against the consolidation in a Sept. 6 commission meeting, saying the proposal needs more study and public hearings. The consolidation passed 2-1, with Commissioners William Peters and Gayle Stevenson supporting it.

Three attempts by Lawrence to repeal the vote at a subsequent commission meeting died for lack of support.

Auditor Ruth Kennington, a political ally of Lawrence, and clerk Margene Isom also opposed the consolidation.

Kennington maintains consolidating the offices will undermine the county's system of checks and balances and is politically motivated to remove her from office.

Isom said she opposes the consolidation because the duties of the two offices are not necessarily compatible and the workload is too high. The clerk's office is responsible for voter registration and elections in the fall - the same time the budget for the next year is being formulated, which is the busiest time of the year for the auditor, Isom said.

The consolidation was recommended by a five-member bipartisan study committee which estimated it will save the county up to $250,000 in salary costs every four years.

The study was requested by the commission after the bulk of the county clerk's work was transferred to the state in January when the state took over operating the district court system.

Several other counties in the state, including Box Elder and Weber, are also looking at consolidating the two offices. The county commissioners, under state law, can combine the offices by ordinance.

Although opposed to the consolidation, Isom said she is also opposed to the referendum because it will cost the county thousands of dollars to print petitions, check the names of the signers to determine if they are properly registered voters and add the proposal to the ballot in the election.

Kennington supports the petition drive and notarized the signatures of Lawrence and the other four persons on the petition.

Under the rarely used state statute, petitions will be distributed through the county and if 10 percent of the registered voters who cast ballots for governor in the last general election sign them, the consolidation is nullified and the proposal is put on the ballot for review in the next general election.

Isom estimates about 7,000 valid signatures will be needed, and Lawrence said his group will seek 10,000 names to ensure the issue gets on the ballot.

The county attorney's office, along with the state attorney general's staff, is looking at the statute to determine when the petitions have to be turned in and the names validated, Isom said.

The clerk said she expects an opinion by Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday along with some additional guidelines on how the petitions will be printed, distributed, and verified.

Lawrence indicated the petitions will be circulated through the winter, with the validation process complete by March 15. Candidates for the combined office could begin filing in March, but if the consolidation ordinance is nullified by then, it would be clear to potential candidates that the consolidation is being challenged and the combined office may not exist.