Detractors of a new city hall for Las Vegas tried to take the fight to the ballot box, but as of Wednesday, they're going to have to duke it out with the city in court first.
That's because the Las Vegas City Council, in a series of 6-0 votes, decided that two ballot measures are "legally defective" and should not be placed on the upcoming city election ballot.
The measures challenged the city's plans to build a new city hall as well as Las Vegas' overall redevelopment plan, which uses grants and incentives to encourage development in blighted areas.
"It's a sad day when the City Council and mayor are afraid to put an issue that's been signed by 14,000 citizens before the voters," said Chris Bohner, research director for Culinary Local 226, which instigated the petition drive. "I think they're afraid."
He said the union will review the council's action and decide on a court challenge within a few days.
The vote came after a lengthy presentation by City Attorney Brad Jerbic, who said the petitions overreach, pose serious constitutional problems and could lead to a legal quagmire.
The two measures put forth by Culinary are:
• The Las Vegas Redevelopment Reform Referendum, which would repeal the city's existing redevelopment ordinance.
• The Taxpayer Accountability Act Initiative, which would require voter approval for any appropriation over $2 million to pay back a "lease-purchase" agreement. That's the financing mechanism being considered for a new city hall.
If voters approved the referendum, Jerbic said, "you end the life of the redevelopment agency. If you repeal that, nothing survives."
That would mean that $23.3 million in bonds guaranteed by the agency would be in jeopardy, along with $50.8 million in tax increment promises to pay back developers for infrastructure improvements.
Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, Jerbic said, bans laws "impairing the obligation of contracts."
"The obligations of the redevelopment agency to bondholders clearly would be impaired," Jerbic wrote in a memo to council members. "The city is not obligated to put on the ballot any measure that would be invalid or unconstitutional if approved."
As a practical matter, undoing the redevelopment plan would become "a very, very, very complicated mess," he told the council.
"The chaos that would ensue ... will trigger a wave of lawsuits that will make previous civil cases in this state pale by comparison," Jerbic said. "It all goes to hell in a handbasket."
The objections to the initiative are more technical, involving a distinction between legislative and administrative functions of government.
Court decisions have held that initiative and referendum powers apply to legislative decisions -- the power to create or toss out a law.
Allocating a specific appropriation in the city or redevelopment agency budget is an administrative task, Jerbic said, and that's the duty of the City Council or people appointed by the council.
Council members offered little comment before voting. Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian was not present for the votes.
"It's not an easy thing for us to reject," Councilman Steve Wolfson said. "What you're basically telling us is not to listen to the voters, in a sense."
Mayor Oscar Goodman addressed the throng of Laborers Local 872 members who packed the room for the second council meeting in a row. Construction unions have been strongly in favor of building a new city hall, putting them at odds with the Culinary union.
"I am saddened by the events that have brought us to this point," Goodman said. "You people will be back to work if this council has anything to do with it."
Bohner said he didn't hear anything new in Jerbic's arguments.
Neither side should have absolute confidence in their arguments, said Steve Johnson, a professor at the Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"The city has at least a substantial argument. For anyone to declare this is a slam dunk one way or another would be, I think, bravado."
That's because the distinction between a legislative action and administrative one is "murky stuff," Johnson said.
"Policy is legislative; detail is administrative. Where do you draw the line?"
The city is on firmer ground when arguing against part of the initiative that would define the voters of Las Vegas as a "legislative body" for the purpose of approving redevelopment plans, Johnson said.
"A legislative body is defined by state law," he said.
There are different categories of ballot measure challenges, he added, some of which are heard before a vote and some after -- meaning there could be court fights before and after the June 2 vote.
Contact reporter Alan Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-229-6435.