Effie Saifi needed 4,403 signatures on her petition-ordinance to limit the City of Plano’s use of eminent domain. She has been fighting with the city for a strip of land behind the Montessori Children’s House in Plano for nearly five years now.
Her school sits on Hedgcoxe Road, backing up to a creek and treeline that enclose and create a private, safe playground area for the kids. However, the City of Plano wants the land to finish the Preston Ridge Trail, which would connect Frisco to Plano, and Plano to Dallas. Saifi fears the trail would put the school children in danger because of higher traffic that will come through the area.
After drafting an ordinance-turned-petition, Saifi and her supporters gathered 7,456 signatures on 836 pages. They had far more signatures than needed and figured that council members would either enact the ordinance at Tuesday night’s special city council meeting or, at least, put it on the November ballot.
They figured wrong.
In a shocking turn of events, the city council claimed Montessori school's petition didn't have enough signatures. The initiative failed.
Now, all Saifi has left in the fight is her court date on July 19.
“I am really shocked and dismayed,” Saifi said in a statement to Local Profile about the petition’s failure. “I am disgusted by the Plano city government. There is gross discrepancy between what we have counted and the numbers presented by the Plano council. It appears that the City has once again forced citizens to go to court in order to enforce the city charter and the democratic process."
“In sum, we were very disappointed, not only because we did not get what we expected but because of the wrongdoing and wrong saying by some members of our own government,” she continued. “The same government who is supposed to protect us. We still continue to do whatever it takes to stand up for what is right.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Plano City Secretary Lisa Henderson gave a report on the Montessori school's petition. She explained that they have to follow various rules in order to verify petition signatures and spent nearly 300 hours doing so. The petition, for example, must contain a signature, printed name, residence address, county of registration, date of signing and date of birth or voter registration number. They will reject signatures if the signer doesn’t meet these criteria.
And the number of signatures Saifi needed is based on Section 702 of the charter, Henderson told the council. The amount of signatures gathered has to equal 20% of the votes cast in the last regular election (4,403 votes). Henderson and her team were only able to verify 4,237 signatures — just 166 signatures short.
Henderson explained that some of the signatures, and even entire pages, couldn’t be verified because the signer didn’t include an identifiable date of birth or address, their voter registration number, or they weren't a registered voter in Plano. Some also didn’t identify a county of residence, and if they did, it was a county other than Collin or Denton.
She also said one of the petition circulators had failed to sign the petition in compliance with the charter requirement, which impacted 19 pages of the petition.
“For these reasons, the petition failed to meet the requirements for a valid initiative petition,” Henderson said.
Before Henderson's announcement, about 22 people spoke, and only two were in opposition of Saifi’s ordinance. One worried it would set a precedent, and the other claimed Saifi was spreading false information to get petition signatures.
Saifi denies this claim. Instead she discussed how the process of fighting with the city has physically and mentally drained her. “It's time to heal and move on,” she said. “In addition to the money that is spent, time is another form of valuable and precious currency. Having devoted many years of irrecoverable amounts of time and energy, this case has only afforded me stress and mental anguish.”
Paul Saifi told council members about the impact this process has had on their daughters. He said one of them gave up her day job just to fight against the city.
Saifi's daughter Maryam noted that the city’s use of eminent domain was a “prime example of government overreach.” Saifi's other daughter Mina helped draft the ordinance with Plano attorney Jack Turnan. They formed the group “Planoites for Property Rights,” and hired a validation company to validate all of the signatures.
“You don't get to second guess the signatures on the petition ... or punt on the question,” Turnan said. “You have two options — adopt the ordinance or put it to a public vote.”
Lydia Ortega, who is seeking to become the next Plano mayor, claimed Saifi’s case has gone on for too long. Council members, she argued, are not giving Saifi or the public a chance to have a voice in the matter. “I'm asking you to pass this ordinance because I'm tired of watching the wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money on litigation against a small business. It’s time to move on.”
At the end of the meeting, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere said that he would have probably signed the petition, too, if someone had told him that the city was trampling on the rights of a small business.
But he said that narrative is not accurate.
“I've seen a campaign of falsehood,” LaRosiliere said. “Big, bad city’s trampling over this small business. It's a shame and unfortunate we've come to this point. But I know for myself, and for anybody who's listening to know, my conscience is clear on this. We've done what we can to work with Mrs. Saifi to get to a point where we can move on in a productive manner, and in a fair manner and in an equitable manner.”
A couple of years ago, the city considered dismissing the case against the school entirely, Plano City Attorney Paige Mims said. They were going to let Saifi keep her property. She said the city offered Saifi $50,000 to dismiss the case and keep the land. Saifi allegedly wanted more money and asked for another $25,000, Mims said.
“A lot of the negotiations in this case have gone this way, where they asked for more, it's just not quite right, or they let the deadline pass…” Mims added. “It's just a lot of games, truthfully.”
After the city filed the eminent domain petition, the court appointed three special commissioners to hear the initial case. They appraised Saifi’s land at $25,224. The city offered to settle for $31,530, but Mims said that Saifi did not accept. Special commissioners then offered her $28,588, and Saifi appealed that. The court will hear her appeal on July 19.
The city claims that even though the appraisal was $25,224, Saifi said the value of the school property and damages are worth nearly $2 million. Saifi based this price on her having to close the school if Plano takes her land. But Mims claimed that the school wouldn’t need to be shut down and that there is “no credible evidence or appraisal that supports [Saifi’s] valuation.”
“[The city has] just kind of decided to let her have her day in court this summer,” Mims said. “Whatever the court tells us to pay, we will evaluate and pay. And the due process is there, and she will have that day, and any citizen that wants to hear both sides of that matter can hear it there.”