City council overturns event center initiative

By Theresa Goffredo
Herald Writer

EVERETT, WA - March 7, 2002 -- City council member Ron Gipson made it clear he didn't like the spot he was in. In fact, he said it stunk.

Gipson was torn between the choice of giving people the right to vote on the proposed Everett Regional Special Event Center and the threat of putting the city in debt. In the end, Gipson followed the dollar signs.

"I still support the right to vote, but with all the money we've spent, we need to protect that so we don't end up in the red," he said. "Maybe you can call this grandstanding or getting on my soapbox, but we have a need to protect that money, so I will vote yes."

On Wednesday, Gipson and the six other council members all voted to invalidate a voter initiative to prevent the proposed event center from being built on Hewitt Avenue, solidifying the city's position that the project will revitalize downtown and the sagging local economy.

Gipson's concern about money referred to the city's tally so far of about $700,000 for project consultants and studies and more than $12 million spent on the properties at the Hewitt site.

In declaring the initiative invalid, the council declined to put the measure on the April 23 ballot for a public vote.

But that doesn't mean the issue is put to rest, and the people might still get their chance to vote.

A pending lawsuit between the city and the Everett Public Facilities District still has to be decided by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge.

In the lawsuit, the judge could rule against the district and put the matter before the people. The facilities district, created by the city to operate the event center, wants the judge to throw out the initiative, prevent the public from voting and stop the city from adopting the ordinance that would move the project off Hewitt.

Members of the Citizens for a Better Arena filed the voter initiative Feb. 8 because they believe the Hewitt location would require demolition of too many historic buildings. Only three of those buildings in the two-block area are actually considered historical structures.

The citizens group has hired Everett attorney Tom Adams, who will intervene in the lawsuit. Adams said Wednesday the council went beyond the scope of the city charter. Adams believes the council only had two options according to its charter -- to allow people to vote or to move the project off Hewitt.

"It doesn't change anything we're doing in the lawsuit," Adams said. "The issue of the sufficiency of the petition will ultimately be one of the issues decided by a Superior Court judge."

But John Keegan, the Seattle attorney hired by the city to represent it in the lawsuit filed by the facilities district, told council members Wednesday that they did have more than two options, because Washington case law provided more. Case law allowed the council to vote to invalidate the initiative. Also, legal precedent allowed the council to do nothing on the initiative until the lawsuit is settled, Keegan said.

"It's not a question of the right to vote," Keegan said, "but just of the validity of the initiative."

Echoing some of the same arguments in the district's lawsuit, Keegan said the initiative was invalid because it came too late in the process, after money was spent and contracts were signed. The event center is also unique, Keegan said, in that the project has two deadlines. One is that the anchor tenant, the Western Hockey League, won't grant a franchise in Everett unless a team can begin play during the 2003-2004 season. Another deadline is that a $36 million state sales tax rebate won't be available unless construction begins before Jan. 1, 2003.

Keegan's arguments didn't convince Gipson, who maintained that the council had only two options according to the city charter, not four.

Council member Mark Olson, an attorney, said he often represents people in their pursuit of legal rights, but rights need to be exercised in a timely fashion.

"The charter is explicit for two options, but I believe there is also inherent power of the council to determine the validity of the initiative," Olson said.

At least one Everett resident among those who filled the packed council chambers Wednesday disagreed.

"Just let people vote," said 21-year-old Patricia Hambrick. "Maybe they will totally go for you. Wouldn't that be awesome? But if you don't put it for a vote, then that's just ridiculous. It's just ridiculous."

Follow this issue at Citizens for a Better Arena.

Related story: 

City council declares local initiative 'invalid' - won't place measure on the ballot for a public vote - Arena foe senses a conspiracy - Sharon Nelson wanted to watch Everett's broadcast of its March 6 city council meeting, but it wasn't on the public access channel.

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