HIGHLAND — Three citizens' initiatives could end up as the deciding factor in a hard-fought electoral race in Highland.
The initiatives would democratize the city's water board (members are currently appointed by the City Council), require the city to install grass on certain areas designated as open space, and allow for different types of fences that are required on land that borders open space.
The City Council declined to implement the initiatives when they were introduced in August, citing legal concerns over the creation of a second elected body in the city and financial concerns for the open space initiatives. Supporters said council officials failed to understand what the initiatives are trying to do.
Council members were more or less neutral on the fence initiative, which they said was a matter of preference.
When rejected by the City Council, the initiatives were placed on the upcoming ballot, and have since become a dividing issue in the race.
Randy Graham, a council candidate, said it was his work in collecting signatures for the initiatives that made him want to run.
"As I went door to door and spoke to people, I was absolutely appalled at the sentiment of the people," he said. "A huge majority of the people had concerns about the way the city has been run and about how it could be run."
At that point, Graham said, he decided to stop pointing fingers at the city and become active.
Graham is joined on the ticket by mayoral candidate Blake Buhler and write-in council candidate David Beck. Both men also helped create the initiatives and strongly support them.
Beck said the initiatives are important, but the election is just as much about improving the way the city conducts business and making the government more responsive to citizens. He said the City Council was unresponsive when the initiative issues were first brought up and alienated a number of residents.
"We want to give the city back to the people," he said. "We'll return the city government to the people, because we will represent the people. That doesn't mean everything is going to happen the way everyone wants, but it will be representative of the citizenry."
Buhler could not be reached for comment.
Jay Franson, a mayoral candidate who opposes the initiatives, said the issues behind the initiatives are important and will still need to be dealt with regardless of the election's outcome.
"Whoever is elected mayor, the issue is not going to go away," he said. "Whether the initiatives are voted for or against, the issues are still going to be there and the mayor will have to deal with them. . . . Whatever happens, the mayor will have to work to bring people back together."
Franson, like incumbent council candidate Brian Brunson, said he would have liked to see other issues play as big a role in the campaign as the initiatives have. For Franson, growth management is a high priority, while Brunson said he would like to focus on improving public safety, where police and ambulance coverage are strained.
Brunson said he voted to reject the initiatives because the issues needed to be decided by residents, but he doesn't think the present initiatives will truly solve the problems they address.
"I think there are better alternatives to all three of those issues," he said. "(The initiatives) bring out issues and concerns that need to be addressed, but I don't think they're the best solution."
City Council candidate Claudia Stillman said she does not support the initiatives because "they would have legal and financial consequences that are not in the best interest of the citizens of Highland."
"I believe that the central issue in the election is the selection of qualified, capable individuals who the public can trust to continue to lead the city in a positive direction that will preserve our common values," she said.
Teri Jerman, also running for City Council and opposed to the initiatives in their present form, echoed that sentiment. She said that since the initiatives will be decided by voters, the candidates should be focusing on other issues.
"One of our challenges will be to continue to implement the (master) plan, with slight modifications so that Highland can be all that was envisioned ," she said.