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Judge bucks horse racing initiative, efforts to save 134-year old track

January 26, 2006     E-mail this page to a friend!

By Jason Mohr - IR Staff Writer
with permission of the" target="_blank">Helena Independent Record

District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled Tuesday that Save the Track Foundation, Inc., can’t ask voters to decide the fate of the 134-year-old, one-mile track and a 94-year-old barn.

“This court certainly guards the right of the people to vote on all appropriate issues,” Sherlock wrote. “However, the right of initiative is not unlimited and should not interfere with the day-to-day administrative operations of the county government.”

The county acted administratively when it decided to remove and modify certain buildings and structures, Sherlock wrote, which cannot be challenged at the ballot. A Lewis and Clark County Commission-approved layout plan proposes an exhibition hall-rodeo arena in the middle of the track, and limits use of the ractrack to five-eighths of a mile.

Sherlock said the foundation didn’t meet legal precedent laid out by a 1994 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court.

In addition, the county is free to shorten the track, move the track, eliminate the track or build a new track, Sherlock wrote, because it’s not a permanent feature.

When informed of the decision, Foundation member Patty Rambo said the county changed plans on the voters who supported the $5.8 million levy passed in 2004.

“The taxpayers in this county voted for a plan,” she said. “The plan is totally different than what the people thought they were voting for. It’s downright fradulent.”

Rambo said she wasn’t sure of the foundation’s next step. The group has another legal action pending against the Lewis and Clark County Commission, also over the layout plan.

Lewis and Clark County Administrator Ron Alles said the decision reinforces the county’s position. Although he is often on the receiving end of criticism, he said he respected the legal challenge.

“We’re moving ahead with the (fairgrounds) plans,” Alles said. “We feel that we followed the public process appropriately.”

In July, a judge rejected a foundation attempt to stop gravel work on the racetrack infield. The county attorney’s office rejected the group’s ballot initiative three times before asking Sherlock for a ruling.

n In related news, longtime Fair Board member Chick Smith resigned Monday.

Smith, a non-voting member and Jefferson County representative, voiced opposition to the controversial layout. The Helena native has long involvement with the fairgrounds, riding barrel racing events as far back as the 1960s.

“If they do what they want to do on the infield, I’ll never go back there again,” Smith said Wednesday.

n County officials will host a fairgrounds grandstand-exhibition hall planning workshop Jan. 31. Discussion will include concessions and fairgrounds entry points, although horse racing isn’t on the agenda. The workshop will be held at 6 p.m. in Room 326, City-County Building, 316 N. Park Ave.

Reporter Jason Mohr can be reached at 447-4075 or