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Little chance for court referendum

May 22, 2011 12:15 am


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."

One of those options is to make renovations to improve security in the existing circuit court building on Princess Anne Street.

Whether such improvements would meet the approval of circuit court judges is uncertain. But Circuit Judge Gordon Willis, the resident judge in the city, has told the council he doesn't want to see a "Band-Aid" approach

At a public hearing last week, residents had mixed opinions on the courthouse.

Howe maintains that there hasn't been more backlash from city residents because they don't yet know the true price tag of the project and how much their taxes will go up.

The proposals range from $31 million to $41 million.

Howe said part of his rationale for putting forth a referendum is that the public hasn't had enough say in the decision.

Howe has two allies on the council--Bea Paolucci and Brad Ellis.


Ellis said he supports more public input.

"Anything we can do to help steer this project from a public's point of view is a good thing in my mind," he said.

"The idea of a referendum is appealing to me because it will do just that. It will put this issue right in the face of voters that actually have to make a choice and provide some input," he said.

Paolucci said she doesn't disagree with the idea of a referendum.

"The basic premise, allowing voters to vote for something of this importance having this much impact I don't think it's a bad idea to put it out there for a vote," she said.

Council member George Solley said he thinks the public hearing last week produced good input.

Going for a referendum is moot since the city attorney has issued her opinion, said Vice Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw.

She dismissed the notion that the public hasn't had an opportunity for input.

Mayor Tom Tomzak said a referendum doesn't need to be used.

"I think the City Council is elected by the public to make decisions and provide leadership to get Fredericksburg into the future," he said.

Councilwoman Kerry Devine echoed the point.

"We've been elected to do a job and represent the community and make tough decisions," she said.

"Decisions have to be made in good economic times and poor economic times. We have to look at long-range issues with the city. That's what we've been doing with the courthouse since 2005."

Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413

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