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Court to Hear Suit Against Anti-Ballpark Measure

Redevelopment: Legality Of Initiative Questioned

Initial demolition work in the ballpark district began last week, but unless San Diego attorneys can obtain a favorable court ruling this week, the Padres ballpark project could be headed for extra innings.

A San Diego Superior Court hearing scheduled for Feb. 18 centers on an attempt by opponents of the ballpark to dismiss two separate lawsuits against an initiative campaign they launched late last year to overturn the ballpark measure Proposition C.

The measure approved by nearly 60 percent of city voters in November 1998 called for the city and Padres to build a 46,000-person capacity ballpark as the centerpiece of a $1 billion redevelopment project including hotels, offices and retail space in the East Village section of Downtown.

Separate lawsuits against the opponents’ initiative were filed last month by the city and the Padres. The suits challenge the legality of the initiative, saying initiatives may only be used to propose new legislation, not challenge administrative acts to fulfill the terms the agreement already approved by voters.

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In response, attorneys for the two citizens whose names appear on the initiative, Michael Dunkl and Phillip Zoebisch, filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuits. The motion claims the city is violating the ballpark opponents’ basic free speech rights.

Bruce Henderson, the longtime ballpark opponent who wrote the initiative, said citizens have a constitutional right to petition government to seek redress. Furthermore, he said the courts have historically upheld that right.

“The courts have never issued an injunction against a citizens initiative,” he said.

Bay Area Decision

Assistant City Attorney Les Girard disagrees, saying the courts have ruled certain initiatives were invalid and kept these off a ballot.

He cited a case of an initiative two years ago that challenged a proposed stadium in San Francisco. Girard said the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers objected to the way the initiative was written, and the courts agreed with the team, effectively stopping the initiative.

Henderson said he was familiar with the case, but it proves his point since the defendant was the San Francisco city clerk, not the citizens proposing the initiative. In the San Diego case, it’s the ballpark opponents who are being sued by the city government, which is illegal, he said.

Girard said the city is anticipating Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell will agree with the city’s argument that its case has a probable chance of succeeding, and throw out the opponents’ motion.

Once that happens, the city would face another court hearing Feb. 28 to hear the merits of its original lawsuits against the initiative.

If McConnell rules in the city’s favor, the city also hopes the ruling is broad enough to apply to a referendum campaign, also headed by Henderson, that started earlier this month. The referendum challenges the city’s approval of authorizing up to $299 million in bonds for the ballpark.

Referendums are used to challenge a legislative action taken by a government agency, while initiatives are used to propose new legislation.

Opponents’ Strategy

Henderson said if the opponents’ arguments are upheld by the court, his group will concentrate first on obtaining the necessary 30,000 valid signatures by March 1 to qualify the measure for a city ballot. To get that amount, opponents probably need to obtain about 45,000 signatures to ensure the minimum amount is reached, he said.

If ballpark opponents succeed, the City Council has the option of rescinding the action, calling for a special election, or putting the measure on the November general election ballot.

A special election would cost the city about $1 million.

Of course, delays to beginning construction also add to the costs of the ballpark. The original estimate for the ballpark was $411 million but that has already increased to at least $446 million. The increase comes in the form of higher costs for the land, construction materials and financing.

The city’s agreement with the Padres calls for the team to assume any construction overruns on the ballpark over $267.5 million. Earlier this month, the Padres also agreed to assume certain costs on land should those exceed $100 million.

The project was scheduled to break ground in April and be completed by Opening Day 2002, but most optimistic ballpark fans say that date is impossible.


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