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Initiative Spurs Suits By Padres and City Hall

Redevelopment: Ballpark Proponents Seek to Stop Ballot Measure Drive

San Diego city attorneys and the Padres filed separate suits last week asking the court to halt an initiative campaign seeking to overturn the city’s ballpark agreement.

The suits filed in Superior Court take two different approaches challenging the initiative launched in December by a group called Citizens for a Fully Informed Vote.

The initiative proposes that because certain requirements contained in the memorandum of understanding have not been met, it must be terminated. Opponents need to collect some 60,000 valid signatures by May 1 to qualify the measure for a public vote.

The city’s suit contends opponents are misusing the initiative process, saying it can only be used for proposing legislation, not to challenge administrative acts.

Assistant City Attorney Les Girard said the initiative circulated by opponents takes specific aim at administrative actions taken by the City Council instead of proposing new legislation, and therefore, is improper.

Girard said the real aim of the initiative is to overturn the results of Proposition C. The ballot measure approved by nearly 60 percent of city voters last November sanctioned the memorandum of understanding between the city and the Padres which outlined the plan for a 56,000-person capacity ballpark and surrounding commercial development in the East Village section of Downtown.

The ballpark cost was set at $411 million and would be jointly financed by the Padres and public funds. Besides the ballpark, the project includes hotels, office, retail and residential development estimated at more than $1 billion.

“The proponents of the initiative, who are really opponents of the ballpark, are really trying to thwart the democratic process and the will of the voters who approved Proposition C,” Girard said.

But a spokesman for the initiative said the city and the Padres are the ones trying to stifle citizens’ basic rights of free speech.

Opponents’ attorney Ron Carrico said just because Prop. C was approved last year doesn’t mean the ballpark is a dead issue.

“Intelligent people can change their minds and can say they made a mistake,” Carrico said.

He noted that a key provision in the memorandum of understanding states the agreement cannot be amended without majority vote, except in specific cases that do not increase the city’s costs.

Last month, the city approved a financing plan for the ballpark that called for issuing up to $299 million in bonds, above the $225 million specified in the agreement, he said.

Additionally, Carrico said the city’s cost for acquiring the land for the ballpark will rise to about $100 million, above the original $81 million estimate.

“They’re about $95 million over budget, and they haven’t turned a shovel yet,” he said.

The Padres lawsuit focuses on the contractual obligations contained in the agreement, and how the initiative would illegally sever these. If that happens, both the city and Padres would not only lose millions of dollars already invested in the project, the city would be liable for damages.

Padres President Larry Lucchino said a minority of ballpark opponents should not be allowed to abuse the initiative process, and waste taxpayers’ money on another election, and maybe yet another if they lose once more.

“Presumably, after each vote they lose, they would initiate another,” Lucchino said. “That is a fundamentally unfair and illogical abuse of the electoral process.”

So far the Padres and the club’s development partners, JMI-Burnham Inc., have spent more than $20 million on the ballpark project, mostly on architectural design and engineering plans over more than two years, according to the Padres.

Girard said the city is asking the court for an expedited hearing, perhaps within the next 60 days, which would be in early March.

That date would closely coincide with the city’s plans to issue lease revenue bonds for the project.

But the presence of the initiative and two pending lawsuits against the city cast doubt on any bonds being issued, on the targeted groundbreaking in April, and the ultimate opening date tabbed for April 2002.

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