The two groups heading a referendum petition drive on Lincoln's so-called fairness ordinance believe they will have more than enough signatures by a Tuesday deadline to get the issue on the ballot.

The campaign had handed in petitions with about 1,500 signatures by noon Thursday. But those circulating the petitions have said they have collected more than 5,000 signatures, twice as many as needed.

Many of those carrying the petitions have not reported their numbers, so leaders of the drive are expecting more than 5,000 signatures to come in by early next week, said Dave Bydalek, executive director of Family First, one of the organizations working on the petition drive.

The leaders plan to hand in the signatures to the city clerk’s office by 4:30 p.m. Tuesday despite a letter from City Attorney Rod Confer saying he thinks the petition language is flawed. He has refused to explain what the problem is, saying that would help those who oppose the ordinance, which bans discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in city housing, employment and public accommodations.

Bydalek criticized that attitude at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“A referendum should not become a ‘hide the ball’ or a ‘gotcha’ game," he said.

People who signed the petition knew exactly what they were doing, Bydalek said.

City charter provides the right to put an ordinance to a vote of the people, he said, and he asked why city officials would want to disenfranchise voters.

Bydalek said the ordinance was railroaded through the process from the very beginning, pointing to a short time frame between when supporters began to talk about the ordinance and a vote by the City Council. 

“The City Council, mayor and city attorney don’t want to govern us but to rule over us,” he said. 

Those supporting a vote of the people “have followed in good faith everything the charter has called for," said Al Riskowski, executive director of Nebraska Family Council. "Now we are asking the city to let us vote."

Mayor Chris Beutler has not decided whether to take any legal action based on the city attorney's opinion that the petition language is flawed, said Chief of Staff Rick Hoppe.  

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But in a news release, Beutler defended the city attorney’s decision not to tell petition leaders the specific nature of the problem.    

And he defended the decision to seek council approval of the anti-discrimination ordinance rather than take the issue to a vote by the people.

“When fundamental minority rights are threatened by discrimination, it is the duty of elected leaders to intervene and protect those fundamental rights, just as we have in previous eras for African-Americans, women and the disabled,” Beutler said. 

“That’s why the City Council passed and I signed the fairness ordinance to protect the civil rights of certain citizens ...” the mayor said in the news release.

Lincoln’s last referendum election was November 2004, when voters approved a smoking ban.

Bar owners had gathered enough signatures to force a citywide vote after the council approved a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars in June 2004.

But voters agreed with the council decision and approved the ordinance by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin.

Reach Nancy Hicks at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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