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Plano citizens scored a major victory Wednesday in their four-year fight with the city over referendum rights, winning an appeal in their lawsuit to compel Plano officials to act on a referendum petition concerning the city’s comprehensive development plan.

Yesterday’s decision by the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas directs a district court to order the city secretary to present the citizens’ referendum petition to Plano City Council within 14 days. The ruling also allows the citizens to recover their legal costs.

Attorney Jack Ternan, who represents the Plano petitioners, called Wednesday’s ruling a “citizen victory.”

“We are pleased that the Dallas Court of Appeals has, for the second time, told the city secretary to follow the law and do her job,” Ternan told Texas Scorecard. “She should present the petition without delay.”

Plano residents frustrated by their city’s lack of responsiveness are also pleased with the latest court ruling.

“This is what got me started in politics,” local resident Debbie Bonenberger told Texas Scorecard. “After more than four years and $600,000 of taxpayer money, the court ruled unanimously in favor of the people. Awesome news for the citizens of Plano!”

The referendum petition calls for the city council to either repeal or put to a public vote the Plano Tomorrow Plan, adopted in October 2015 amid controversy over land-use provisions that critics said encouraged too much urban-style, high-density development. Within 30 days, over 4,000 Plano citizens signed the petition, following rules set out in the city’s charter.

Plaintiffs representing the petition signers—who totaled more than twice the number needed to force a vote on the issue—filed a lawsuit in 2016 after City Secretary Lisa Henderson refused to submit their petition to city council as required by the city charter.

City Attorney Paige Mims hired outside attorneys and spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars to block the citizen petition, claiming comprehensive plans are not subject to referendum.

Last September, a visiting district court judge sided with the city government against Plano citizens.

Following a hearing earlier this year, the 5th Court of Appeals disagreed with the city’s arguments, siding with the citizens.

The appellate court’s ruling not only orders the Plano referendum petition to proceed, but upholds the right of all Texas citizens to petition for a referendum vote on comprehensive plans—a power Plano city officials sought to deny local citizens:

“[T]he legislature did not limit the power of home-rule municipalities to adopt comprehensive plans—and certainly did not indicate with ‘unmistakable clarity’ its intent to withdraw the voters’ retained power to invoke the referendum process with respect to such plans. …

 

“Here, appellants are not seeking to initiate legislation, they are merely challenging an existing municipal enactment and wish to have the qualified voters of the City of Plano decide whether they approve of what the City Council adopted. In essence, they seek to veto an act of the City Council through this process. The process to create the Plan has already occurred, and that process, no matter how complicated, is not implicated here. That public officials may have to develop a new plan that survives voter hostility is inherent in the exercise of the power reserved to the people.”

As city officials dragged out the referendum lawsuit, local voters elected new city council members who listened to their concerns and, in the process, rejected candidates bankrolled by outside real estate developers.

Last year, the newly balanced council formed a 16-member citizen Comprehensive Plan Review Committee, which is expected to report its recommendations to the planning and zoning commission later this year.

There is no word yet on how the city plans to respond to Wednesday’s court ruling.

The full opinion can be read here.