July 26--SAN ANTONIO -- Days before the city is set to announce whether a vote on VIA Metropolitan Transit's streetcar can be held this fall, opponents of the rail project released a legal opinion defending the validity of more than 26,700 signatures they submitted in the hopes of getting the issue on the ballot.
The opinion, sent to the entire City Council on Friday, addresses an issue the city raised in a statement sent to the San Antonio Express-News earlier this month. In it, the city said each petition page must also include a circulator's affidavit to be considered valid. The circulator is the person who takes the petition to people to sign.
An unknown number of the 3,261 petition pages included with the streetcar packet did not include the circulator, petitioner organizers said.
However, a lawyer hired by streetcar critics said those circulator affidavits aren't necessary because the petitioners are trying to amend the city charter.
"Claims have reportedly been made that, to be valid, the petitions must be accompanied by a certain type of affidavit from the petition circulators," wrote Houston-based attorney Jerad Najvar.
State law does not require the circulator affidavit on petitions to change city charters, Najvar wrote.
The city's claim, the opinion says, confuses charter amendment petitions with petitions for recall, initiative and referendum, which carry different requirements.
The charter amendment is not a recall; and initiatives and referendums relate to ordinances, Najvar wrote, which he said is not the same as a charter amendment. In an interview, Najvar said he believes the city doesn't "draw a distinction between ordinance initiatives and charter amendment initiatives." But they are distinct, he said.
City Attorney Robbie Greenblum did not return a request for comment Friday.
The three-page opinion was released ahead of an announcement expected next week by City Clerk Leticia Vacek about whether the opponents have at least 20,000 legitimate signatures, the minimum needed to get a streetcar-related charter amendment on the November ballot. Signatories must be registered to vote in the city of San Antonio.
"We just wanted to pre-emptively clarify things," said Najvar, who is being paid by Let the People Vote, a specific-purpose political committee formed to raise funds for the streetcar opponents' efforts.
If the city determines Monday that the petition packet is invalid because of a lack of circulator affidavits, "the client is going to be interested in taking whatever action is necessary to make sure the City Council applies the law," Najvar said.
The charter amendment, if passed, would mean no streetcar or light rail could be built in city rights of way without public approval first.
After opponents delivered their petitions to Vacek's office on July 8, she had 20 days to determine if they had enough valid ones.
The City Council has scheduled an executive session to discuss "legal issues related to a petition submitted for amendment of City Charter" at 2 p.m. Monday, the 20th day since the signatures were submitted.
The deadline to get an issue on the November ballot is Aug. 18. There are only two regular council meetings scheduled before then.
At least one council member has come up with a backup plan should the petitions be ruled invalid. District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher is circulating a council consideration request that addresses whether the council itself can vote to put streetcar on the November ballot.
The councilman did not release his request to the Express-News but said it gives the City Council options, with a goal of getting a measure on the ballot that achieves the petitioners' intent. But, he said, a vote could also address the city's decision to help fund the 5.9-mile rail project. Of the $210 million VIA has for the project, the city has voted to give $32 million; but the council has yet to officially vote to issue the debt for that payment.
Gallagher is working to get the signatures of four additional council members to move his request forward to the full council.
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