That’s a question raised by the Minnesota news story I cited in this post. As I wrote there, it may be better to ask: can voters have enough of a comfort level with the possibilities that they don’t have to worry about legal remedies? But how the district responds to the legal question now can affect people’s confidence about how it will act in the future. In this series of posts, I’ll review how the district has addressed the legal question over the last year.
In October, the administration provided the board with the following statement:
What if an event or events happen that require the District change plans over the five-year period? Can the District choose not to complete a project that was listed as part of the voter referendum? Remember, ALL of the projects included on the ballot MUST be completed. It is not appropriate for the District to not complete certain projects. If the District does not complete all the projects, the failure to do so may subject the District and the Bonds to voter challenge. The projects as described in the ballot and to the voters MUST be done. The District can’t decide Project XYZ is no longer feasible after four years and simply not do it. Also, if there is excess capacity and the District wants to use it to build an auditorium, but that wasn’t a project included on the ballot, then G.O. Bonds may not be issued nor can G.O. Bond proceeds be used for that project.(The all caps appear in the original; emphasis in bold added here.)
That’s a pretty strong statement about the legal effect of bond passage. As we discussed the issue in that work session, though, a somewhat different message came through. The board’s chief financial officer said:
Can you change plans once it’s approved? No, you can’t. You have to do what you tell the voters you’re going to do. Pure and simple, you’ve got to carry it through. Now, if you issue the bonds, that is. If you don’t issue the bonds, then you can do the projects using sales tax dollars and not run amok of the law in what you said you were going to do in the referendum. So, even though they gave you approval to do these projects, if you don’t issue the bonds for them and you choose to do them through sales tax, that’s okay. But once you issue the bonds, you better carry through with what you told the voters you were going to do. That’s how you have to look at this.(Emphasis added; full recording here.)
Voter passage of the bond proposal is different from the actual issuance of the bonds, which occurs later (in some instances, years later) and in several stages. To issue the actual bonds, the district has to be very specific about the planned use of the money, and its legal obligations at that point are much clearer and more constraining. But the chief financial officer’s statement left some uncertainty about how constrained the district would be after voter approval but before it issues the bonds.
This basic question would arise several times as the board discussed the bond proposal. Continued in part 2.