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City charter would push possible stadium election to November

Friday, January 11, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Petitions calling for an election that could challenge the city’s deal for a new soccer stadium aren’t expected to be certified until early February, but city staff has already decided November is the soonest a referendum election could take place.

Citing the city charter’s language covering referendum elections, city spokesman David Green said the current schedule for general elections doesn’t allow the six-month waiting period required to take place between any referendum measures. The neighborhood group Friends of McKalla Place is pushing for a May election because construction is expected to start by fall on a 20,000-seat stadium on a city-owned parcel in North Austin.
Article 4, Section 4 of the charter states:

When the council receives an authorized referendum petition certified by the city clerk to be sufficient, the council shall reconsider the referred ordinance, and if upon such reconsideration such ordinance is not repealed, it shall be submitted to the voters at a regular or special election to be held on the next allowable election date authorized by state law after the date of the certification to the council.Special elections on initiated or referred ordinances shall not be held more frequently than once each six (6) months, and no ordinance on the same subject as an initiated ordinance which has been defeated at any election may be initiated by the voters within two (2) years from the date of such election.

“We tried to do the math a few different ways to get them within that six-month window to get them to the election … we couldn’t do it,” Green said. “We can’t do it with 180 days, we can’t do it at six months or 365 divided by two; rounding down, rounding up, we just couldn’t make it happen with the way general elections fall.”

That position likely means the certified petitions would result in a November election, creating questions about how effective it would be in short-circuiting the stadium deal, terms of which were approved by a 7-4 City Council vote over the summer. That drew loud criticism from some residents near the McKalla Place site, in part because the deal with Precourt Sports Ventures, the group behind a Major League Soccer franchise destined for Austin, didn’t include a request-for-proposal process that is typically used for city parcels.

Friends of McKalla Place is a loosely organized group that took up the petition campaign started in the fall by the activist group IndyAustin, which bowed out following controversy that its messaging on the stadium issue included anti-Semitic themes.

“It’s an old story in Austin, that people come here and want to make a lot of money. I understand that and it’s a great town to do that, but they want to get around the rules,” said Craig Nazor, a resident of the Gracywoods neighborhood near the stadium site and thus far the only Friends of McKalla Place member to speak publicly.

“We tried to focus the petition so it wouldn’t interfere with other issues and entities in Austin on public land like Austin City Limits fest, because we want to focus this narrowly on sports venues on public land …. when you look at those around the country they haven’t been good deals,” Nazor said. “If you’re going to allow city land to be used for a private enterprise to make money off of, then that should go to a vote of the people.”

While the fate of the petition language is decided, PSV has hired architects and engineers, selected a contractor for the construction and filed a fair notice site plan that locks in current zoning and other regulations for the site. That step could be important because of coming changes to the city’s flood plain maps (the process known as Atlas 14) that could create new flood protection and drainage requirements in many parts of the city.

Richard Suttle, PSV’s attorney on the stadium project, said state law would prevent a completed contract from being abridged by a city ordinance, making the push to stall the stadium a nonissue.

“We have a signed contract and you can’t undo that by ordinance,” he said. “The way we see it, we won’t be involved or affected by this even if (the petitions) do get certified.”

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