A public referendum on the $120 million plan to build two new schools remains possible, the city attorney said this week.
Dale Clift, the city attorney, said that as long as the question is phrased properly, a referendum on the issue can be held if 10 percent of the city’s registered voters sign petitions calling for one.
It’s happened before.
Three decades ago, city councilors approved a new kindergarten to eighth grade school on Peacedale Street that voters apparently didn’t want to see built. They gathered signatures, forced a referendum and gunned the project down, according to Clift and Ann Baldwin, an assistant city lawyer.
At the request of city councilors, Clift’s office is preparing a legal opinion laying out exactly what the law requires in order for a public vote to happen.
It doesn’t appear that the City Council can simply request a referendum, officials said. The only clear avenue for holding a referendum is to gather about 3,200 valid signatures.
At least two councilors, Republicans Ken Cockayne and Mike Rimcoski, said they’d like to see voters get a chance to have the last word on the project.
Though there is no group pushing for a referendum, many residents have expressed support for one.
Among them is Sherwood Road resident Tom Doyle, who said that Bristol’s residents should get “to vote on our future.”
It isn’t clear, though, if anyone intends to pursue the matter.
The city is planning to put construct two 900-student schools beginning in June 2010. Educators say they’ll close a middle school and three aging elementary buildings when the new schools open the doors.
The proposed sites for the new schools are awaiting final approval from the City Council as well as the hiring of architects to do the complex blueprints required before construction can start.
Forcing a referendum is a tough job, as supporters of the chief operating officer proposal found this summer when they had to sweat to get the plan on November’s ballot by collecting more than 3,600 valid signatures.
Getting the right wording is also problematic.
Clift said that the issue on the ballot “cannot be vague” or too broad. He said, too, that his office can’t help write a question for a petition drive. It can only review if afterward.
“Whatever comes along, we’ll look at it,” he said.
But several officials said that something that matches to some degree the wording of the 1970s referendum ought to suffice since it’s already passed legal muster.
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