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Rules to get petitions on ballot must be followed

The Stutsman County Commission is including two initiated amendments to the home rule charter on the November general election ballot, but we feel neither belongs there.

One of the initiated amendments would form a 17-member committee to advise the commission on road issues. The proposed committee consists of 12 people elected from the townships and small cities, the two county commissioners with the county road portfolio and three people named by the Jamestown City Council.

The other initiated amendment would require 2 percent of the county's net taxable value, about $1.2 million, be placed in the county road construction fund by the county.

Neither petition was circulated with an attached list of sponsors -- a requirement set by North Dakota election law.

Regardless of your feelings on the petitions, including the initiated amendments on the ballot is not about the amendments themselves, it's about following the rules and protecting the public. Obtaining a list of sponsors keeps the process of adding initiated amendments transparent. It allows people signing the petition to know who favors the amendment and who is responsible for it. That's important for petition signers to know. If a commercial group, for example, initiated a certain measure, the public has a right to know who that group is and how it would benefit from the initiated amendment.

Plus, allowing groups to add petitions to a ballot without following the rules sets a dangerous precedent. The county can't expect future groups to follow the laws when proposing petitions if it doesn't hold these groups to that same standard.

Fritz Fremgen, Stutsman County state's attorney, issued a memo in July outlining his interpretation of the steps required by North Dakota election law for a petition drive to amend the home rule charter. It required an organized sponsoring committee to present the petition form to the auditor's office for approval before gathering signatures. It also required affidavits of sponsorship from at least 25 members of the sponsoring committee. Neither of these steps was met for the initiated road measures.

Both groups supporting the initiated amendments say they didn't need to attach a list of sponsors. They argue those steps were unnecessary and not required by the laws concerning forming or amending a county home rule charter.

That's the same argument used by organizers of the statewide pharmacy measure to repeal North Dakota's pharmacy ownership restrictions.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger threw it out because the group supporting it obtained the list of sponsors, but didn't include the list on the petition itself. The North Dakota Supreme Court heard arguments on the case this week.

In the road measure's case, Fremgen later said the issues should proceed to ballot because the county may end up in court and it may lose. He said state law doesn't allow for undue restraint to the petition process.

We don't think following the rules is an "undue restraint."

Of course, it's important the public form petitions and have access to the means to do so. But it's equally important that the public is protected and informed when signing such a petition.

(Editorials are the opinion of Jamestown Sun management and the newspapers editorial board)