story by Jamie Smith, special to The City Wire
A lawsuit asking for an injunction against a Washington County sales tax election benefiting public transit was dismissed Friday afternoon. The ballots for the May 22 will continue to have the transit tax question.
An organization named Citizens for Effective Transit and Coleman Taylor filed the petition against all of the Quorum Court members, Washington County Clerk Karen Combs Pritchard and the Washington County Election Commission. The petition, filed by Fayetteville attorney Brian Lester of Lester Law Firm, alleged that the Quorum Court improperly sent the quarter-cent sales tax increase to the ballot.
On Friday, the Citizens for Effective Transit group was dismissed from the lawsuit because it is not an incorporated entity and therefore does not have legal standing to file the petition. All of the respondents except for the Election Commission were also dismissed from the suit because the matter is in the hands of the Election Commission and no longer involves the other county officials who were named.
The quarter-cent sales tax, if passed, will generate an estimated $7.5 million dollars to be used to expand the public transportation system in the county. The Quorum Court would have final say on how the money is distributed, but Ozark Regional Transit is considered to be the primary beneficiary of the tax dollars if the tax increase receives voter approval.
According to the opinion filed Friday afternoon by Washington County Circuit Court Judge G. Chadd Mason, the injunction petition was filed too late for him to justifiably stop the election.
“Injunctive relief is an extreme remedy, and should be used sparingly by the courts to prevent the holding of a regularly scheduled election,” Mason wrote.
The petition was filed May 10 and was amended May 16. Early voting for the May 22 election began May 7. The Washington County Quorum Court voted to place the measure on the ballot March 8, giving the petitioners approximately two months to file an injunction if they so wished, according to the opinion.
Lester said Friday afternoon he appreciates Mason hearing the case but he “respectfully disagrees” with the decision, saying citizens should have the right to bring concerns to the court at any time in the process that they see a problem. Lester said by dismissing the petition based on the argument that the court should not interfere with the election, the court was not dealing with the specific issues found in the petition itself.
The petition provides several reasons that the petitioners believe the tax measure to be invalid. The petition alleges that the Quorum Court:
• Failed to have enough votes to place the measure on the ballot;
• Failed to satisfy the requirement that a measure be read three times before being placed on the ballot when, during the second reading, a clause was added that allegedly significantly altered the measure’s meaning;
• Failed to adopt an ordinance that the justices of the peace can say would benefit Washington County, based on the fact that language was added that said the Quorum • Court neither supports or does not support the measure; and
• Allowed an allegedly ambiguous and misleading tax ordinance to be placed on the ballot.
“I hope that the voters have the opportunity to get educated on the issue, not just the tax but the whole process that was involved,” Lester said.
Washington County Attorney George Butler said he “felt confident” that the case would be dismissed based on the timing of the petition and he was not surprised that the judge did not address the issues of alleged impropriety.
Those matters can be more fully addressed in any potential post-election actions that are brought against the county in regards to the measure, he said.
“This allows all the parties involved to fully brief (the issues) and for the court to hear it,” he said.
If the measure does not pass, the issue of inappropriate taxation becomes a moot point, Lester agreed. If it does pass, his clients may consider filing additional suits to have the vote overturned but that will be decided at that time, he said. He does not expect that an appeal of the judge’s decision because it would not have a chance to be heard in court before the May 22 election, Lester said.