*CORRECTION: Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said there was not a lack of public process during the council's consideration of the project. A word was omitted from a previous version of this article.
COLUMBIA — For Pat Fowler, gathering signatures to repeal approval of a downtown housing project was a grueling process that had her standing outside local gathering places for up to 12 hours at a time with short breaks to go home and walk her dog.
The group Fowler helped organize was in the city clerk's office on Tuesday afternoon with a petition bearing 3,633 signatures to repeal a student housing project approved March 19 by the Columbia City Council.
The petition began after the council, on a 4-3 vote, approved a development agreement with Opus Development Co. for a six-story, 256-bed apartment complex on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets.
The group needs 3,209 signatures from registered voters to force the council to vote on repealing the agreement with Opus. If the council would uphold its previous vote, the issue would be put to a public vote, according to the city charter.
Jeremy Root, a local attorney and a spokesman for the repeal group, said the process leading to the vote didn't give the public enough time to understand the project and its impact on downtown Columbia's strained infrastructure.
According to the city charter, citizens have 20 days after an ordinance is passed to file a petition to repeal it. A valid petition requires the number of signatures of registered voters to equal a quarter of the votes cast in the last mayoral election. Tuesday was the deadline to submit the petition.
There were 12,835 votes cast in the 2013 mayoral election, according to the Boone County clerk's website. That means the group had 20 days to collect 3,209 signatures.
That was a difficult pace to meet, Fowler said.
"We found that going to ordinary events that Columbia usually holds such as the Farmers Market, Saturday and Sunday events at the library, events at Ragtag Cinema and places that we knew people would gather were a better opportunity for us when we had such a short time frame," Fowler said.
On Monday, Fowler said the petitioners would use Tuesday to gather signatures outside polling places in order to have a buffer of several hundred signatures in case some were considered invalid.
The city clerk's office will work with the Boone County clerk's office to verify signatures from registered voters and ensure there are no duplicates. The petition has to be vetted within 30 days, according to the city charter.
If the petition doesn't have enough valid signatures, the petitioners will have 14 days to gather more, City Clerk Sheela Amin said.
The ordinance being targeted was one of three such development agreements the city considered during a one-week period. Collegiate Housing Partners plans to build a 351-bed complex at Fifth Street and Conley Avenue that was approved by the council. The other proposed project, a 718-bed complex proposed by American Campus Communities, was tabled by council until May.
The ordinances were introduced during a special meeting at noon March 12. There was opportunity for public comment during a meeting March 17, and the council voted on the ordinances after another public hearing during a special meeting two days later.
"Having the first (public hearing) be less than 48 hours before the second meeting completely undermined the public process," Root said.
The procedure was unusual. Ordinances are usually introduced and given a first reading at one council meeting and then voted on after a public hearing two weeks later.
According to city staff, the Opus project needed to be placed on this accelerated track because of the need to acquire the land for the project and begin construction in time for the project to open in August 2015.
Root said there was no need for the project to proceed and its passage was an example of the council putting private interests above those of the public.
Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said there was not* a lack of public process during the council's consideration of the project and cited the additional public hearing compared to the standard one.
He also said that if not for the infrastructure needs facing downtown Columbia, the project would have just received a building permit after submitting plans instead of needing council approval.
That answer didn't sit well with Root.
“The idea that if circumstances were different we wouldn't need council approval doesn't go anywhere for me. The circumstances weren’t different.”
Fowler said some of those gathering signatures had previous experiences with petitions, such as protesting the reapportionment of City Council wards and a proposed enhanced enterprise zone.