A bipartisan group of citizens is mounting a challenge on two fronts to a $200 million major league soccer stadium deal approved by a split Austin City Council.
IndyAUSTIN, a local political action committee headed by longtime activist Linda Curtis, has begun circulating petitions seeking a referendum that would give voters final approval power over a stadium agreement between the city and Precourt Sports Ventures, a company that wants to relocate the MLS’ Columbus Crew to Austin.
Adding to soccer stadium supporters’ worries, attorney Bill Aleshire told The Texas Monitor Friday he intends to file suit against the city if it finalizes the contract with Precourt based on the general terms agreed to in August by the city council.
It’s the third time this year Aleshire has represented petitioners who are pressing for actions they haven’t gotten from the city council itself. Petitions are responsible for questions on the Nov. 6 ballot asking voters whether they favor an independent audit of all city departments and for final approval of any comprehensive land development code.
The Texas Supreme Court in late August rejected Aleshire’s request for a court order forcing the council to reconsider its wording of both of those ballot questions, which Aleshire’s clients contended was misleading and prejudicial.
Curtis said the latest petition is directed at what she called the bad deal foisted on taxpayers by Mayor Steve Adler and a 7-4 council majority and their decision to leave the details of the final stadium agreement in the hands of city staff and negotiators for Precourt.
The solicitation on the IndyAUSTIN website calls on petitioners to “Boot Adler and his Sucker Stadium.”
The Texas Monitor on Friday morning contacted Adler’s staff asking for the mayor to comment on the petition and the stadium deal. No one had responded to the request at the time this story was published.
Curtis said Austin residents remain disgruntled about the tax exemption and other concessions made to Precourt over the objections of city council member Leslie Pool, who voted against the deal and for months called it a “massive giveaway.”
The Texas Monitor contacted Pool’s office Friday morning seeking comment, but had not heard back at the time this was published. Pool had earlier told the Austin Bulldog she approved of putting the stadium issue back in the hands of the public
“The text of the petition reveals continuing public reservations about the city giving publicly owned land to a private business,” she told the Bulldog in an email. “It speaks to a desire for full disclosure and transparency, and I echo those concerns.”
The city agreed to lease the city-owned 24-acre McKalla Place property for a sports venue at the same time the council approved asking voters for authorization to borrow $250 million in part to buy land for affordable housing — two huge spending commitments in one gulp, Curtis said.
“But the real reason, the number one reason I oppose this is that the final contract is being done in secret negotiations, somewhere in the bowels of city hall. We’re never going to see it,” she said. “I’ve never seen arrogance on this scale in the 25 years I’ve been doing this kind of work in Austin.”
Curtis, who has worked on many progressive and populist causes during those years, enlisted Roger Borgelt, an attorney for and member of the Travis County Taxpayers Union, to craft the wording of the petition. Petitioners have until January to gather roughly 20,000 valid signatures and get them certified in order to get the question on the next ballot, in May 2019.
Borgelt, who is also a member of the city’s Charter Review Commission, told The Texas Monitor he does not expect the final contract for the stadium to be signed before the end of this year. You can read the text of the petition here.
The petition sounds like something out of a complex legal document. It would not only require that any soccer stadium land deal be approved by voters, but would require a super-majority vote by the council – that is, 7 votes out of 10 – to even put such a question before the voters.
The same requirements would be placed on proposals to convey city land for entertainment facilities or arenas, and on permits and variances for developing such sites. All information about such sales and leases would have to be made public, performance bonds would have to be posted, and property taxes or equivalent payments would have to be paid on the land.
Borgelt, who has been active in local issues since the creation of the 10-district council in 2014, said he objected to the lack of competitive bidding for the McKalla Place property, the concessions made to Precourt, and the lack of transparency in the process.
As with the efficiency audit and the CodeNext land development code, “there is a sense in a lot of quarters of the city that this mayor and city council are captive to a small group of political consultants, lobbyists and neighborhood groups,” Borgelt said. “This city government is not being responsive to the needs of its citizens.”
Aleshire, who helped Borgelt with the petition language, said that if the petition doesn’t stop the deal, a citizen has asked him to represent him in a lawsuit on the matter. In June, Aleshire sent a letter to City Attorney Anne Morgan challenging the way the mayor and the council were going about the negotiations with Precourt.
In the letter, Aleshire told Morgan any lease agreement that allowed the city to skirt a bidding process for McKalla place was illegal, as was the city’s refusal to release an appraisal and the request for proposal issued concerning the property.
“All I can say now is that a lawsuit will be filed if the city manager approves a contract with Precourt incorporating the term sheet approved in the 7-4 vote by the city council,” Aleshire said.
IndyAUSTIN is kicking off its petition drive with a gathering at 6 p.m. Oct. 5 at Big Daddy’s, 9070 Research Blvd., Curtis said.
“I don’t care if it’s Democrats, Republicans, independents, libertarians, whatever,” she said. “We’re pro-small-D democracy. This was dishonest and I think people are outraged.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]