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Fate of 3 Highland initiatives unclear

HIGHLAND — The fate of three citizens initiatives that were the focal point of election races in Highland remained undetermined by press time, as city officials had not compiled results.

The three initiatives would make the city's water board independent of city government, require the city to place grass on city-owned open space and allow citizens more options for fences that border open-space lands, respectively.

Initiative one, the Water Board initiative, would make the board that oversees the city-owned water system a publicly elected body.

Residents voted last year to allow the city to take control of the system from a private entity, but initiative sponsors said they feared the city would raise water rates and use the money for the general fund and other projects.

The city created a water board, with members appointed by the mayor and City Council. Sponsors hope an elected board with control over water budgets and revenues would grant the board independence from the council and prevent revenue transfers to other areas of the city budget.

"The initiative is based on the bedrock principles of dividing government power and having in place a system of checks and balances on government," initiative sponsors Jay R. Henrichsen, Ruth Ostler and Erin Pritchett wrote in the voter information pamphlet provided to residents.

However, attorneys for the city said such a board would be illegal, as only the City Council can legally control city funds, and an elected board would not make the water system function better.

"The current system is not broken," Council members Brian Brunson, Gwyn Franson and Glen Vawdrey wrote in the voter information pamphlet. "Another layer of government will not make Highland water operations more efficient or help reduce water rates. It is most likely to do the exact opposite."

City officials have emphatically denied that water funds have ever been used outside of the water department, and passed an ordinance last week to prohibit the city from doing so in the future.

Still, some residents questioned the city's response to the initiative. Sponsors last week accused the city of misleading voters by saying the bill would create a water board, when in fact the board already exists.

City staff responded that bill sponsors had been notified of the initiative's title in a letter that asked for their comments, but no one responded.

The debate over the second initiative, regarding open space, centered around financial concerns and an apparent miscommunication.

Supporters say the initiative is targeted at overgrown areas, designated as open space, that border private homes. The initiative would require the city to install grass on all open space areas in developed areas.

However, city officials said that as the bill is written, the city would be required to install grass on all open-space areas, including the acres of mountainside land the city owns. The cost of implementing such an initiative, they said, would be extreme.

The third initiative received little debate. Sponsors argue it would allow residents to install taller fences along property lines that border open space areas, but city council members said the initiative would create safety concerns by creating alleyways and would also violate existing agreements with developers.