San Diego city officials and the San Diego Padres are hoping for some good news next month.
Reeling from a series of court challenges and signature-gathering campaigns against the Padres ballpark, they are now focused on a Feb. 28 Superior Court date for relief.
The court will hear arguments on the legality of an initiative launched last month to overturn Proposition C. The 1998 measure authorized the city to enter a contract with the Padres to build a 46,000-person capacity ballpark and redevelop a 26-block area in the East Village section of Downtown.
There are now two initiatives challenging the ballpark project. The one launched in December by a group called Citizens For a Fully Informed Vote was written by former council man Bruce Henderson.
A new initiative proposed last week is by another ballpark opponent, retired USD law professor Robert Simmons, who heads up a group called San Diego Progressive Action Committee.
Henderson’s initiative challenges the failure of the city to meet certain requirements contained in the memorandum of understanding approved by voters in Proposition C.
Simmons’ effort attempts to legislate a cap on the amount of transient occupancy taxes or hotel taxes used to repay a planned bond issue. The cap would be no more than 5 percent of all collected money, also known as hotel room taxes.
Initiative Hinges On Ruling
City Attorney Casey Gwinn said if the city obtains a favorable ruling in the Henderson case, the Simmons initiative would likely be declared invalid, and would allow the city to issue bonds on the ballpark this spring.
Gwinn said the city would also need to resolve two lawsuits against the ballpark, challenging the project on a variety of environmental issues, but the initiative campaigns are a more critical problem.
“This is a core issue on how you run a government,” he said.
If opponents to a project can put an issue to a vote every time some new data is revealed, and call for another vote on the issue, a city could be halted from doing any business.
“The lawsuits may not be able to stop the project, but if the initiative succeeds, I believe that will spell the end of the ballpark project,” Gwinn said.
Meanwhile, an attorney representing the two main petitioners in the Henderson initiative, Michael Dunkl and Philip Zoebisch, filed a motion to dismiss the two suits filed by the city and the Padres earlier this month.
Kent Wilson called the actions “SLAPP suits,” or strategic litigation against public participation, and said their intent was to stifle his clients’ First Amendment rights.
“We’re asking the lawsuits be thrown out of court because their intent is to chill the freedom of speech and petition,” Wilson said.
Judge Judith McConnell is scheduled to hear the motion Feb. 14.
Simmons’ initiative, which can begin collecting signatures within three weeks, needs to obtain some 60,000 valid signatures by the end of July to qualify the measure for the Nov. 8 ballot. He said there shouldn’t be any conflict with the Henderson initiative, and that voters can sign both.
If passed by a majority of city voters, the Simmons ordinance wouldn’t overturn the ballpark project as Henderson’s aims to do. It would simply limit the amount of transient occupancy tax allocations to 5 percent of the total taxes collected.
Simmons called Proposition C an advisory vote, “similar to a popularity poll, or like a Field poll.” He said citizens deserve a binding vote on the project in light of facts including higher financing costs, and lack of parking, and other problems that will end up costing the city far more than originally stated.
“This has been sham politics that was a deliberate process of deception of the citizens of this town,” Simmons said. “I think they deserve another right to vote on an ordinance that will be binding.”
In the November 1998 election, nearly 60 percent of voters approved a memorandum of understanding between the city and Padres for the construction of a 46,000-person capacity ballpark and commercial redevelopment of a 26-block area in the East Village section of Downtown.
Gwinn said Simmons obviously hasn’t read Proposition C, and his argument contradicts a judge’s ruling before the 1998 election that affirmed the city’s ability to enter into a contract prior to completing an environmental impact report.
“That’s what (former City Councilman) Bruce Henderson took us to court on. He said the city cannot enter into binding contracts unless we complied with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), and a judge ruled that we could enter into those types of contracts,” Gwinn said.
Simmons’ initiative would put a cap on how much the city could allocate from the hotel taxes for the ballpark or any other sports arena to no more than 5 percent. Based on the current 2000 budget estimate, that would be about $5 million
The city’s original estimate on annual debt service to retire $225 million in bonds for its share of the ballpark was $20.7 million. Most of the hotel taxes was to come from new hotels built in and around the ballpark, including a 1,200 room hotel at the Campbell Shipyard site next to the Convention Center expansion.
Debt Service Hike
Last month, the City Council approved issuing up to $299 million in bonds for the project, an amount that could raise debt service to more than $23 million.
Last year, the transient occupancy tax fund reached nearly $92 million. The 2000 budget estimate is for $99.5 million. The tax is 10.5 percent on the cost of a room.
From the 10.5 cents on the dollar, the city allocates 5.5 cents for general fund purposes, or essential city services. The remaining 5 cents goes for promotional and marketing programs including the city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Simmons said he’s an avid Padres fan, and isn’t against the ballpark per se, only in the way it is financed.
Padres’ owners John Moores and Larry Lucchino have the ability to pay for the project themselves, especially in light of how much the franchise’s value will increase once the ballpark is built, he said.
“They can stick their hands into their deep pockets and either pay the debt service entirely, or contribute to the payment,” he said.
Under the agreement, the $411 million ballpark was to be paid by $296 million in public funds coming from the city’s $225 million bond issue; $50 million from the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s Downtown redevelopment agency; and $21 million from the San Diego Unified Port District.
The Padres would contribute $115 million, with much of that coming from fees raised by the stadium naming rights and concession contracts.