Friday, November 2, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

IndyAustin suspends paid petition drive against stadium deal

An activist group looking to prevent the city from making deals to build for-profit entertainment venues on city land has pulled back some of its resources for a petition drive.

IndyAustin began collecting signatures in September with the goal of putting a ballot measure before voters next spring that would have required voter approval before any deal to use city land could be made official. That drive was a response to the agreed-upon-but-not-yet-finalized deal between the city and Precourt Sports Ventures to use the city’s McKalla Place property in North Austin as the site for a 20,000-seat soccer stadium.

On Thursday, IndyAustin organizer Linda Curtis confirmed reports the group is suspending its use of paid petition gatherers.

“The paid drive is no longer being run by Indy Austin. We will continue to gather volunteer signatures,” she said by text to Austin Monitor.

Curtis didn’t answer what had led to the paid drive ending.

Earlier this week IndyAustin came under intense scrutiny for its use of a video clip – in a video criticizing Austin Mayor Steve Adler – that included the Pepe the Frog cartoon character, which has been adopted by alt-right and anti-Semitic groups.

Adler, who is Jewish, joined the chorus speaking out against the group. Joining him was Bobby Epstein, lead partner in the Circuit of the Americas racetrack and a donor to IndyAustin’s petition drive, to the tune of $24,000. Epstein’s response to the Pepe controversy said he was withdrawing his support from the group, but he didn’t confirm to the Monitor if he expected to receive some or all of his money back.

Curtis told the Monitor earlier this week that she was unaware how much of Epstein’s contribution the group still had on hand but would return it “if we haven’t spent it yet.”

It is unknown how far IndyAustin has progressed in its goal to collect the 20,000 signatures it wanted to get to put the ballot initiative before voters in May.

That ballot measure is one of a number of possible legal and political issues in play as the city and PSV continue to work to finalize the lease deal at McKalla, with the expectation of a 2021 debut of a new Major League Soccer club there.

Bill Aleshire, a local attorney who advised IndyAustin on its petition, has informed the city he intends to file suit to block the deal as soon as it is finalized by City Manager Spencer Cronk.

And the Travis County Commissioners Court recently voted to have its legal department investigate possible legal challenges to the city’s deal at McKalla on the grounds that city ownership of the property would prevent the county, Austin Independent School District and other taxing entities from being able to collect property taxes from improvements made on the property.

Representatives from PSV, which went public a year ago with its plans to relocate the Columbus Crew team to Austin if a new stadium could be built, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the state of the IndyAustin petition drive.

Austin Anthem, the fan group organized in support of the Austin soccer team, said they are still concerned about remnants of the petition drive leading to confusion and controversy surrounding the stadium issue.

“Austin Anthem fully supports suspension of this petition drive, which is aimed at overturning a decision made with full authority by Mayor Adler and City Council. We continue to believe City Council’s 7-4 vote approving the privately funded stadium at McKalla Place was the result of a thorough and community-centric process to bring the benefits of division one soccer to our city. We also condemn IndyAustin’s tactics and anti-equality statements that have emerged in recent days,” said Jeremiah Bentley, vice president of marketing and communications for the group.

“However, we are very concerned with reports that there are still paid petitioners on the streets acting with direction from IndyAustin. CAC Enterprises, which we believe is now running the petition drive, receives funding from IndyAustin. As such, we call for a suspension of the petition drive in its entirety, and continue to support the actions of our Council, which acted in the best interest of the Austin community as a whole.”

Photo by Kate Groetzinger.

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