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August 18, 2020

Absent a statutory basis for a public referendum there is no clear legal right to a court's granting an order in the nature of mandamus to compel the holding of a public referendum


Qualified electors of a Town [Plaintiffs] filed a proceeding pursuant to CPLR Article 78  seeking a court order in the nature of mandamus compelling the Town [Respondents] to conduct a special election providing for certain term limits for the offices of Town Supervisor and members of the Town Board. Supreme Court dismissed Plaintiff's the petition for failure to state a cause of action and, in effect, denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding. Plaintiff appealed the Supreme Court's ruling.

The genesis of this Article 78 action was the Plaintiffs' filing a petition under color of Town Law §81(4) asking the Town to hold a referendum on a proposition to limit the terms of the Town Supervisor and members of the Town Board to "no more than two consecutive terms." The Town Board did not reject the petition filed by the Plaintiffs but took no further action on it on the advice of the Town Attorney. The Town Attorney had concluded that Town Law §81 did not permit a referendum concerning term limits.

Finding that there was no statutory basis for a public referendum on this particular issue, the Appellate Division ruled that Plaintiffs' petition failed to adequately allege a clear legal right to the relief Plaintiffs sought and sustained the Supreme Court's granting the Respondents' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' petition for failure to state a cause of action

The Appellate Division explained that the extraordinary remedy of mandamus will lie only to compel the performance of a ministerial act, and then only where there exists a clear legal right to the relief sought, citing Legal Aid Society of Sullivan County v Scheinman, 53 NY2d 12. Further, said the court, a town may not submit a proposition to the electorate "in the absence of express statutory authority permitting it to do so."

Noting that Town Law §81(1)(d) specifically provides that: "The town board may upon its own motion and shall upon a petition ... cause to be submitted at a special or biennial town election, a proposition ... [t]o vote upon or determine any question, proposition or resolution which may lawfully be submitted, pursuant to this chapter or any general or special law," the court opined that such language "only operates if submission of the proposition to the electorate has been specifically validated by some other law."

As Plaintiffs failed to set forth separate statutory authority for a public referendum on this particular issue, the Appellate Division held that Plaintiffs' petition failed to adequately allege a clear legal right to the relief sought, a court order in the nature of mandamus compelling the Respondents to conduct such a special election, sustained Supreme Court's decision granting the Respondents' motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs' petition for failure to state a cause of action.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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