Supreme Court enters Culinary-city ballot measure fight

Ballots for the June 2 Las Vegas city election are already being printed, but a fight over including two measures on those ballots is still going on.

Today, the Culinary union appealed a ruling keeping the measures off the ballot and asked for a fast-track hearing by the Nevada Supreme Court, since Election Day isn’t far away and early voting starts May 16.

“If this court does not issue relief in time for new ballots to go to regular voters, no doubt the city will argue this case is entirely moot,” states the union’s brief in support of an expedited hearing.

While “voters overseas have been sent ballots without the measures ... they could be sent corrected ballots prior to the June election.”

The Supreme Court could also order a special election that’s solely about the two measure, the filing adds. Next week will bring a flurry of activity in the case.

In an order today, justices asked that a brief exploring their ability to order a special election be filed by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The city will have until 4 p.m. Thursday to respond to that filing and to the request for a fast-track hearing, with the union’s response due by May 4.

After that, the court will “immediately resolve” the fast-track issue, the order states. Culinary Local 226 leaders headed up a petition drive to put two measures before Las Vegas voters. One, a referendum, seeks to repeal the city’s redevelopment plan. The other, an initiative, would give voters control over a type of financing for large projects as well as approval of future projects in the redevelopment area.

The City Council voted not to put the measures on the ballot and a district judge recently agreed, saying that the union failed to meet a number of state and constitutional requirements.

The union’s legal brief argues that the judge was wrong.

The single-subject rule used to disqualify the initiative, for example, only applies to statewide measures, not local ones, the brief argues. Furthermore, the city didn’t raise this objection within a 15-day time limit set in state law.

But even if the single-subject rule does apply, the brief continues, the initiative doesn’t violate it because it only concerns one subject: “voter approval of use of taxpayer funds to finance large new development projects.”

The district judge also said the referendum was misleading because it purported to affect only future projects. He agreed with the city’s case that approval would in fact end all redevelopment and jeopardize $80 million in existing bonds and tax incentives already committed to by the city.

State law allows local governments to form “redevelopment areas” in which incentives and tax breaks are offered to spur development.

The brief argues that existing arrangements aren’t threatened. There is “a presumption of prospective-only effect, so that a redevelopment plan continues to exist for purposes of repaying existing indebtedness, but no longer exists for prospective purposes (that is, new projects).”

In legal arguments before the District Court, attorneys for Las Vegas fiercely contested that interpretation, with City Attorney Brad Jerbic saying the repeal of the redevelopment plan would be a legal and financial “catastrophe.”

The Culinary union has emerged as a thorny critic of Las Vegas’ efforts to attract development downtown, and some doubt that their motives are pure.

When REI Neon came forward with a plan for a sports arena and other development on 85 acres north of the Stratosphere, Culinary sued, saying the developer didn’t have control of all the land claimed in the plan.

Later, the city’s deal with CIM Group, which is remodeling the Lady Luck and surrounding properties, came in for criticism because of what a union spokesman called a sweetheart price on city-owned land.

And there’s a proposed new city hall, which has been lampooned as a wasteful boondoggle that will saddle taxpayers with a massive bill in the future.

Those projects, city leaders have argued, would create both construction and permanent jobs and raise property values and taxes downtown — enough, the contention goes, to pay for the new city hall and make other incentives worth it.

Mayor Oscar Goodman, meanwhile, has repeatedly questioned the Culinary’s true motives. What they want, he says, is for the city to lean on would-be downtown casino developers and steer them toward labor agreements with the union, and they’re willing to monkey-wrench the city’s redevelopment efforts to get it.

The union’s leadership dismisses that, claiming no motive other than the one stated in today’s filing: “The voters,” it states, “are threatened with irreparable financial injuries.”

Contact reporter Alan Choate at or 702-229-6435.