Ethics initiative proponents optimistic petition will succeed

May 31 2010 - 11:21pm

Organizers of the petition drive to force an independent ethics panel on the Utah Legislature are upbeat these days.

Who would want to run for the Legislature if they are bound by ethics? "You'd be surprised by how often we hear that joke," said Luwanna Shurtliff, herself a former legislator and currently Weber County volunteer coordinator for Utahns for Ethical Government.

UEG is the grassroots organization behind a petition drive seeking to place a legislative reform initiative on the November general election ballot. The chief reform would be an ethics panel with members from outside the Legislature, which currently polices itself when it comes to monitoring gift-giving by lobbyists and other ethics concerns.

The petition drive needs 95,000 signatures by Aug. 12, including 10 percent of voters' signatures in 26 of Utah's 29 Senate districts, which roughly follow the borders for the state's 29 counties.

The effort suffered a setback in March when Lt. Gov. Greg Bell disallowed signatures gathered online.

But just this week the UEG and the Utah Chapter of the ACLU announced they will fight Bell's interpretation of the law in court.

They will be joining with an independent candidate for governor, Farley Anderson, who has an appeal pending before the Utah Supreme Court over Bell's decision, which cost him enough "e-signatures" to block his candidacy.

The UEG easily lost 10,000 signatures when the e-signatures were disallowed, said David Irvine, a Salt Lake City lawyer and one of the statewide leaders of the drive. The number is crucial, he said, leaving the signature count for the petition drive at roughly 77,000 as of April 15.

A Bountiful Republican, Irvine served four terms in the Utah House during the 1970s and 80s.

"We feel strongly things are way out of control in the Legislature," he said. "They've created a culture of entitlement where unlimited amounts of money sluice through the system, causing havoc."

More than 25 former legislators are part of the UEG, he said. "And it's pretty evenly bi-partisan."

Shurtliff said recovering the lost e-signatures could make a big difference in the Weber County tallies. "We had a lot, definitely a lot of signatures online," she said, through the efforts of several active bloggers.

"Why can we do everything else online and not this?" she asked. "You can get fishing licenses, a driver license, online."

"The issues here are simple," said ACLU cooperating attorney Brent V. Manning in a release that called Bell's e-signature decision illegal.

"Since the earliest days of the common law, a 'signature' was any mark that the signing individual intended to be his 'signature.' That was true whether the mark was on paper, on wood, on a wall, or on a cow.

"For the lieutenant governor to carve out 'e-signatures' as somehow less worthy of recognition than any other 'signature' contradicts the established law of this state. Utah law provides that a signature 'may not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because it is in electronic form.'"

Shurtliff said the Weber petition drive is continuing strong. "We figure that with Senate District 18, we're pretty good," she said. "With District 19 and 20 we still have some work to do."

The three districts all cover parts of Weber County.

"I don't want to release an actual count," she said. "It's just so iffy. And we worry about losing momentum when we announce figures. But we're doing well."

To meet the 10 percent requirement, 2,170 signatures are needed for District 18, the seat of Sen. Jon Greiner, R-Ogden, which includes parts of Weber and Davis counties, she said.

District 19, represented by Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, covers Morgan and part of Weber county, and a small part of Summit County, will need 3,476 signaturess, Shurtliff said.

District 20, Sen. Scott Jenkins', R-Plain City, encompassing the county's west side as well as Roy and Riverdale, will require 2,897 signatures, she said.

"That's a tremendous hurdle," Irvine said of the 10 percent requirement. "It can be difficult to know which district the signatures come from. We're having some particular problems in the urban counties."

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