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Little chance for court referendum
The idea of a referendum divides City Council

Date published: 5/22/2011


It's unlikely that city voters will get to decide any time soon whether Fredericksburg should build new court facilities.

A referendum--backed by three City Council members--can't be held under existing law, City Attorney Kathleen Dooley said.

Virginia law states that "no referendum shall be placed on the ballot unless specifically authorized by statute or charter."

"We [the city] don't have any kind of special charter authority," Dooley said.

That would leave it up to the state legislature to either make a change to the city's charter or pass legislation authorizing a referendum.

House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, who represents the city, said he would introduce legislation only if the council were to approve the request.

He would not back legislation for just one council member.


The idea of a referendum is the latest suggestion to surface in the ongoing debate over new court facilities.

The City Council has been talking since 2005 about building new court facilities, and now has eight proposals from five firms.

A public hearing was held last week. On Tuesday, the council will hold a work session at 5:30 p.m. for additional talks about the matter. The council may narrow the range of proposals to consider at that session.

Councilman Fred Howe III, who has championed a referendum, said that Dooley's legal explanation is just her opinion. He said he wants to see whether court action could override Dooley's opinion of the state law.

He said the next step would be to bring the question to the courts--but not the city courts, the Virginia Supreme Court.

He said he would follow his constituents' desires.

If they want him to push for a ballot-vote opportunity, then he would.

Since he took office last July, Howe has challenged the City Council on the issue of building a new courthouse.

He said he still isn't convinced that building new court facilities is the right solution.


"I told the city manager, 'If you justify to me the need and desire and there are no other alternatives, then I'm all for it,'" Howe said. "They have not done their job. There are too many other options."

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