Austin City Council rejects citizen-initiated sports stadium ordinance, likely to go on ballot in November

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Austin City Council refused to adopt a citizen-initiated ordinance on Feb. 21 that would give voters a say when city government partners with a third party to use public land for sports and entertainment uses. Council’s decision will likely send the issue to voters in a November special election.

In December, Austin came to an agreement with Major League Soccer investor-operator group Precourt Sports Ventures to build a professional soccer stadium on the city-owned McKalla Place lot in North Austin. Community members upset with the deal circulated a petition to put the stadium deal and all future stadium and entertainment deals for public land up for public vote. The city clerk accepted the petition, which garnered over 26,000 valid signatures, on Feb. 11.

Per city charter, any citizen-initiated ordinance that garners over 20,000 signatures must either be adopted by City Council or put on the ballot for voters to decide.

The proposed ordinance says, ”The City shall not sell, lease, convey, mortgage, or otherwise alienate any City-owned land that will be used as a sports stadium, sports facility, sports arena, and/or entertainment stadium, entertainment facility or entertainment arena,” without a majority vote of Austin voters and three-fourths majority of Austin City Council.

Susan Spataro, a former Travis County auditor who has been a vocal opponent of the McKalla deal and supportive of the petition, said it was a tragedy that the McKalla lot, valued at $30 million, could not be used for affordable housing. She criticized the city for a “total lack of transparency” and said the public should get to vote on something so substantial.

Although the petition was drafted with the McKalla Place deal in mind, Mayor Steve Adler, who spoke against the petition Feb. 21, said it had nothing to do with the professional soccer stadium because the city and Precourt Sports Ventures have already executed a lease agreement.

Rather, Adler said it threatens several community-favorite facilities, such as the Zach Theater, the Waller Creek Amphitheater, Waller Creek Boathouse and the Austin Film Society’s studios, which are all up for lease renewals soon. If approved by voters in November, each of these leases the city has for entertainment uses on public land would need to be approved through an election.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar criticized the petition for being so “poorly worded” that it fails to impact the controversial soccer stadium but places at risk several other community facilities.

City Clerk Jannette Goodall said if the measure goes to a November election, it would cost the city $500,000.

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  1. As worded, the first issue I see is that there’s no lower bound to force a referendum. I’m not familiar with the number of properties the city deals with for sports or entertainment purposes (so that could make this a moot point) but I’d expect this should only apply to “large” projects (based on dollar amount or acreage) like stadiums. It seems it should also have wording to exclude approved projects (i.e.: renewals), so that existing leases aren’t complicated and new projects only have to be voted on once.

  2. Considering the quality of the petitions lately it seems the city charter needs to be amended to require a lot more than 20k signatures. Luckily it seems Austin residents aren’t fooled easily by bomb throwing citizens.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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