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November 22, 2014

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Referendum faces legal hurdle

The Culinary Union has expressed confidence that a referendum to repeal the Las Vegas Redevelopment Plan would win voter approval and is circulating a petition to put the issue on the ballot in the spring.

The 60,000-member Culinary also believes obtaining the 3,000 signatures needed to get the referendum before voters, along with another ballot initiative requiring voter approval on future redevelopment projects, is just a formality.

A 1995 opinion by the Nevada attorney general, however, establishes a precedent that could derail the referendum.

The opinion, which refers to the U.S. Constitution, the Nevada Constitution and a 1973 decision by the Nevada Supreme Court, addresses a previous attempt by voters to repeal the redevelopment plan.

Las Vegas officials have confirmed the decision is an integral part of the strategy to keep the redevelopment plan intact.

City officials are familiar with the decision because Brad Jerbic, the longtime city attorney, presented the city’s case to the attorney general in 1995.

Jerbic contended the voters’ attempt to use a referendum to repeal the redevelopment plan would impair existing contracts between the redevelopment agency and its bondholders.

The attorney general’s office agreed with Jerbic’s assessment, citing the article of the U.S. Constitution that deals with the limits of powers on the states.

In its conclusion, the attorney general’s office stated:

“Referendum simply may not be used to undo the redevelopment plan in this case because the City Council’s adoption of the plan was administrative and not legislative in nature. Additionally, any attempt to place the repeal of the redevelopment plan on the ballot would plainly violate Article 1, Section 10 of the United States Constitution.”

In its analysis the attorney general’s office determined “the ballot measure would plainly and palpably violate the United States Constitution based upon the analysis (Jerbic) provided on the subject of impairment of contracts.”

Chris Bohner, research director for the Culinary Union, said he was unfamiliar with the details of the 1995 attorney general’s opinion, but is confident that the current referendum would pass muster.

“We have structured our referendum so it wouldn’t interfere with any existing bond obligations,” Bohner said.

Despite this, the attorney general’s 1995 opinion establishes a precedent that seems to put the city in a strong position. Some observers say, however, that it might be best if the issue is resolved before the petition drive is completed.

“It’s probably in everybody’s best interest to have a resolution outside of this being placed on the ballot and not to have to go through that kind of divisive campaign,” said Dan Hart, a local political consultant.

The Culinary has declared its intent to get this issue before the voters, and failure to do so, for whatever reason, would be considered a major setback.

The city, on the other hand, runs the risk of alienating voters, who might feel they are being left out of the decision-making process.

There is also the possibility current Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto might not agree with the 1995 decision of then-Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. Either group could also decide to take the matter into the courts if it disagreed with an attorney general’s opinion.

The attorney general’s opinion was not challenged in court in 1995, and there has been no subsequent attempt to repeal the redevelopment plan until now.

If the referendum were to get on the ballot and be passed by voters, city officials say such a broad-based referendum would hamstring their ability to conduct business. In a worst-case scenario for the city, the redevelopment plan, and possibly the redevelopment agency, would have to be restructured.

City officials point out a major overhaul would come at a considerable cost to taxpayers and could further diminish essential services the Culinary says it wants to protect.

Despite the negative effect of a defeat for either side, the hard line taken by both sides could make it difficult to reach a compromise.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has publicly criticized the Culinary’s leadership on this issue, saying it was doing a “tremendous disservice” to its membership and that “its true motives will be revealed at some point.”

Goodman has said the Culinary is taking a hard line on downtown redevelopment projects because proposed casino developers won’t sign card-check agreements with the union.

Goodman chastised Bohner at a recent City Council meeting saying, “I don’t respect you, sir. You’re disingenuous.”

Culinary officials have responded by saying the redevelopment agency has been allowed to run amok and the City Council is supporting an irresponsible set of policies.

“The redevelopment plan as it is and has been carried out needs to be scrapped and any future redevelopment projects should be voted on by taxpayers,” said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary.

There is speculation at City Hall that Taylor, a resident of Las Vegas’ Ward 4, might be considering a run for a political office, possibly Larry Brown’s council seat. Brown was elected to the Clark County Commission in November, and the Ward 4 seat is being filled by Planning Commissioner David Steinman, who does not plan to seek the office. Although Taylor lives in the ward, the Culinary is adamant he has no plans to run for the seat.

“We’ve heard the speculation, but (Taylor) has no plans to run for that or any other office,” Bohner said.

The Culinary, Bohner says, is dedicating its resources to getting the referendum on the ballot. The petition must be submitted by Jan. 23 to be considered in the April 7 primary.

Mark Hansel covers retail and marketing for In Business Las Vegas and its sister publication, the Las Vegas Sun. He can be reached at 259-4069 or at [email protected]

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