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Ethics reformers claim state stalling petition drive

Supporters of a Utah legislative ethics citizen initiative petition said Monday night they feel better about getting Lt. Gov. Greg Bell's official OK on their petition, but still worry that his office could "stall" their voter signature drive.

Bell, who has only been in office a few weeks, told attorneys for Utahns for Ethical Government that he would decide late Monday or Tuesday where to officially release their 25-page petition for the voter signature stage.

Bell's chief staff, Paul Neuenschwander, told the Deseret News that it is not Bell's intention to stall the drive. He said Bell, following his statutory responsibility, wants the petitioners own attorneys' "thinking on some of these questions" so that Bell himself can answer critics of the initiative.

"People who know Greg know he would do nothing like that" — try to stall the initiative — Neuenschwander said.

If Utahns For Ethical Government attorneys don't get the official lieutenant governor-approved petition within a few days, they will sue in the Utah Supreme Court, they said in a letter to Bell released Monday.

Janet Jenson, one of the UEG attorneys, said after an hour-and-a-half meeting with Bell Monday night that "we feel good to go" on starting the laborious work of gathering tens of thousands of signatures of Utah voters, required to move their far-reaching legislature ethics initiative forward.

Bell "admitted that for him to deny our petition" the initiative's language would have to be pretty extreme — "like doing away with the Legislature," said Jenson.

State law says other requirements being met, the lieutenant governor shall issue an official petition unless the initiative is "patently unconstitutional or nonsensical."

"We certainly are not that," Jenson said. Bell questioned three different areas of the initiative, but Jenson said she believed UEG attorneys adequately answered his concerns considering the high unconstitutional bar set in law.

Bell "wants answers in case he is challenged" by UEG opponents who may ask him how he can give the initiative's approval "when it is obviously unconstitutional," Neuenschwander said. "We have to do everything humanly possible to satisfy our legal responsibilities. We're ready to go" on approving the petition for circulation. "But we have to do our due diligence — that's what the people of Utah expect of good government," he said. He does not anticipate holding up certifying the petition, he added.

However, GOP legislators who have already come out against the UEG initiative have publicly said it is indeed unconstitutional.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, an attorney, has written a legal memo passed out to the 104 legislators outlining his analysis of where the 25-page petition violates several state laws, including the state Constitution.

UEG has several tight voter signature deadlines it wants to meet, said Jenson, and every day delay harms their efforts.

"The first comes Nov. 15," she said. If UEG can get signatures of 5 percent of the number of Utahns who voted in the 2008 gubernatorial election by mid-November, then by law legislators must vote on the ethics petition in their 2010 general session, which starts in late January.

If UEG gets 10 percent of the 2008 voters by April 15, then the initiative goes before voters in next November's general election.

The 10 percent threshold equals about 95,000 signatures, hard enough to get, she said. But initiative law — recently changed by the Legislature — also requires that supporters get 10 percent of the 2008 gubernatorial votes in 26 of the 29 state Senate districts. And it is that geographic requirement that is the hardest to achieve, initiative experts say.

Jenson said that assistant attorney general Thom Roberts, legal counsel for the lieutenant governor's office, called her late last week saying his office had "concerns" about the petition's language. Jenson said Roberts refused to put his concerns in writing, and offered only to meet with petitioners "in secret" to discuss those concerns.

"We refused, and said we would only talk in a public meeting," she said.

After sending out a press release on the matter to local media outlets Monday afternoon, Bell's office called her and said they would meet with petitioners Monday night in an open meeting.

The initiative petition is available at utahnsforethicalgovernment.org.

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com