LOS ANGELES -- A recent Arizona state supreme court opinion reinforced the notion that citizens cannot block a specific bond-funded project if voters authorized the debt in a previous election.
The Supreme Court opinion, issued late last month, supported an order that the court issued in May to affirm a lower court decision.
The case arose in 1990 after Mesa, Ariz., decided to move forward with widening a major thoroughfare, Country Club Drive. Mesa officials wanted to fund the project with a $30 million general obligation bond authorization that voters approved in 1987.
A coalition of Mesa residents, called Stop Over Spending, or S.O.S. challenged the project and launched a petition drive to force a referendum on it.
But the city clerk did not process the petitions, saying the city council's various approvals of the project were not subject to referendum because they were administrative, rather than legislative, actions.
A Maricopa County trial court sided with the city's position, prompting the plaintiff in the case -- Marilynn Wennerstrom -- to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. The high court voted 4-1 to uphold the lower court decision.
The majority opinion found that the legislative action occurred when voters authorized the street improvement bonds.
Accordingly, the justices concluded that the city council resolution approving the project was an administrative action because it merely carried out the purpose declared by a prior legislative act.
Ms. Wennerstrom "has noted that the bond proposal itself did not specifically mention Country Club Drive, and argues from this that citizens had not notice that Mesa intended to use the bond funds to widen [the road]," Justice James Moeller wrote in the majority opinion. "While it is true that the bond proposal was not focused on Country Club Drive, that fact does not alter our decision.
"The lack of specificity in a bond proposal grants the city much more leeway in deciding when and where to administer the bond funds. This lack of specificity may well be a valid reason to oppose a bond proposal. It does not change, however, the nature of the council's action from administrative to legislative."
The court also rejected the plaintiff's other arguments, including her contention that the city amended the bond authorization by spending the bulk of funds on one project rather than multiple projects.
Mesa officials, who moved forward with the bond sale last summer, had expected to win the case.
"We felt we were going to win all along," Donald D. Ayers, Mesa's finance director, said Friday.
An adverse decision "would have hurt a lot of cities" by creating an administrative nightmare if citizens had the right to challenge every public works project that entailed bond funding approved in previous elections, Mr. Ayers added.
The League of Arizona Cities and Towns served as a friend of the court in the case on behalf of Mesa.
Justice Stanley G. Fieldman, who dissented from the majority opinion, said the court neglected a fundamental question involving "at what point," could citizens opposed to the Country Club Drive project be expected to challenge it with a referendum.
Justice Fieldman concluded that residents had no way of knowing that such an ambitious project would be targeted when they authorized the bonds.
A Phoenix-based bond lawyer -- Fred H. Rosenfeld of Gust, Rosenfeld & Henderson -- said it is "very rare" to see cases arises where citizens use a referendum petition to challenge a specific public works project.
In that regard, the Mesa case did not create much of a stir because such challenges are so unusual in the first place, he noted.