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Chances look slim for vote on stadium

County clerks now counting signatures; organizer doubtful

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Chances are slim a statewide vote on public funds for the Real Salt Lake soccer stadium will make an election ballot, according to early numbers from clerks for the state's largest counties.

By the end of the day Monday, Salt Lake County reported 341 petition packets had been turned in; each of those packets contains anywhere from one to 550 signatures. In Utah County, nine packets were turned in; in Washington County, one. In Davis County, several packets were submitted but they totaled less than 100 signatures.

The county clerks have 15 days to verify the signatures, then they'll be sent to Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert's office. A press conference is set for April 30 to announce whether the Real petition — along with a petition against the school voucher program — will be certified as sufficient.

"I still think it's probably a long shot," said Brad Swedlund, 50, a Salt Lake City resident who last month filed for a referendum with the state. "It probably wasn't enough, if I'm honest about the whole thing."

Swedlund was one of five Utahns who sponsored the referendum after the Legislature, in February, pushed through a last-minute plan to give Real Salt Lake $35 million in hotel-tax dollars for land and parking at the stadium site in Sandy.

That money only comes from Salt Lake County's cut of hotel taxes, which could be the reason for the disproportionate number of petition packets turned in across the state.

Swedlund and the grass-roots group he formed, Get Real Utah, had a little more than 30 days to collect nearly 92,000 signatures of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election. Those numbers had to come from at least 15 of Utah's 29 counties and were due to the respective county clerks by 5 p.m. Monday.

Estimates from the group about signature amounts are unclear. The group reported in mid-March that 35,000 signatures had been collected. But toward the end of the petition drive, volunteers were asked to send petitions directly to their county clerk, making estimates difficult.

Monday was also the day Real finally began construction on its $110 million stadium. Real is planning to use the $35 million from the state and an additional $10 million from Sandy Redevelopment Agency funds for infrastructure costs at the site.

Those state dollars, however, would not be available for Real's use if enough signatures were are collected. The election would need to happen first.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. makes the call on when voters would consider the referendum. Although the governor has said he'd prefer the election to be as soon as possible, he's now decided to wait for the next scheduled statewide election.

"Just because it is such an expensive process, we would prefer to do it when there's already a statewide election being held," Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said Monday.

The price tag for a statewide election is about $3.5 million.

Roskelley said the issue likely would not go before voters until next year. That could happen during the state's Feb. 5 presidential primary, if lawmakers agree to add it to that ballot. Otherwise, the next regularly scheduled statewide election is set for November 2008.

As for Real's plans if those petition signatures add up, team spokesman Eric Gelfand said he would not comment on speculation. He pointed to the Web site Real has set up to clear up confusion about the stadium, www.rslstadium.com.

The team hopes to complete construction of the stadium in August 2008.

Meanwhile, Get Real Utah is speaking out against the state's referendum process, calling it archaic and hard to navigate.

Gary Forbush, a former Sandy mayoral candidate who joined up with Get Real Utah, said there's need for a statewide referendum reform. Forbush also helped with a referendum effort in Sandy in 2005, against a Wal-Mart proposed in the city's old gravel pit. He's concerned the process pushes residents away.

Swedlund detailed some of those referendum barriers. He said residents should be able to sign a petition electronically; a statewide Internet database should be used rather than counting by counties; a 14-page bill should not be attached to a petition packet but instead a bill summary; and "county issues should involve county signatures, not statewide signatures."

"It's a system set up for the early 1900s rather than early 2000s," Swedlund said. "Why should the Legislature be afraid of the petition process? ... If they don't behave appropriately, they should be reminded of that through a reasonable referendum process."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: astowell@desnews.com