What we know about the MLS petition

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The logo for Austin FC, the soccer club that is scheduled to begin playing at McKalla Place in 2021. 

A couple important updates about the soccer stadium petition:

Still not totally clear on who is Friends of McKalla Place. It’s been a little harder than it should be to find out who is involved with the group that took credit for delivering the 29,000 signatures to the city clerk. Their press release unusually didn’t provide contact info or the names of the group’s leaders, although it did at one point, without explanation, quote environmental/animal rights activist Craig Nazor, who was the only person named in the release.

A source close to Bobby Epstein directed me to Francoise Luca, who is Council Member Leslie Pool’s appointee to the Parks Board (Nazor is Pool’s appointee to Animal Oversight Commission). In a text correspondence, I asked Luca if there was a president or treasurer of the group and she replied that there was “no formal structure.” When I asked if it was a PAC and planned to raise or spend any money, she replied:

“We are not a PAC. We don’t need money to speak out for our beliefs and hold our elected officials accountable to the taxpayers. Surely, the professional press will understand that this is how our government should work.”

If an election occurs, it will likely take place in November of 2019. The petition supporters wanted it to take place in May, but the city clerk says that’s not possible because the city charter prohibits a vote on more than one ballot initiative in six months. (We voted on two in November)

Whether it’s in May or November, the fact that the election is taking place in a year with no national/state elections means that it will most likely be a low turnout affair, with only the most engaged voters coming to the polls. That bodes well for MLS opponents. The people who vote in low turnout elections are much older than the overall population, much more likely to be active in neighborhood associations and therefore much more likely to oppose change/development. It’s also worth noting that the older somebody is in Austin, the less likely they are to futbol fanatics.

There is one big problem with a November election: Precourt planned to break ground on the stadium before then. Will even the chance of a vote against the stadium force Precourt to delay –– or even to pull out entirely?

But does this referendum even affect the MLS stadium at McKalla Place? It’s not clear. A source close to Precourt tells me the deal is done and there’s no way that it can be undone via referendum. But I doubt that Bobby Epstein poured a hundred grand into this venture if he didn’t think it would work. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who voted for the deal, seems to believe that the MLS stadium could be in jeopardy:

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No idea how Council will react to this. The petition that 29,000 people signed proposes a new city ordinance. Council has the choice to either adopt that ordinance or put the ordinance on the ballot for voters to decide on.

Council can only decide against putting the initiative on the ballot if it is convinced that it is illegal, as it tried unsuccessfully to do last year with Prop J, the anti-CodeNEXT initiative (which voters ultimately rejected).

There are probably only two members of Council who really want to see this on the ballot: Leslie Pool and Alison Alter. Incoming CM Paige Ellis did say during the campaign that she opposed the deal, describing it as a tax giveaway. I haven’t heard what Natasha Harper-Madison, the only other new CM, thinks about the deal.

That’s not to suggest that the pro-stadium CMs will vote against putting it on the ballot. If there isn’t a compelling legal argument against allowing it to go forward, I assume they’ll put it on the ballot. But many of them are likely hoping that one exists.


One thought on “What we know about the MLS petition

  1. “Still not totally clear on who is Friends of McKalla Place.”

    I think it’s safe to assume that’s the whole point. I think it’s equally safe to assume the players haven’t changed. The optics behind either of the two principals of Fair Play Austin — the wealthy businessman who wants to kill McKalla Place purely for purposes of promoting his own competing soccer team, and the Grand Petition Queen of Austin — being known as the puppetmasters behind Friends of McKalla Place would likely yield a stronger likelihood of a negative outcome (for them).

    “A source close to Precourt tells me the deal is done and there’s no way that it can be undone via referendum.”

    I suspect he’s right, but I’d fully expect the city attorney’s office to analyze the underlying legality of the matter — possibly by seeking the advice of outside counsel, as they did with Prop J. Even beyond the question of whether a referendum can undo a done deal, I can think of multiple means of challenging the process of writing, and obtaining signatures for, the petition itself. It turned out to be a nonissue since Prop J failed, but Community Not Commodity screwed up from the get-go in terms of following the rules as defined by the city charter for creating such a petition in the first place.

    At least two issues could form a basis of challenging the petition’s legality: the methods used to collect signatures, some of which we already know were at the very least improper, and the fact that its wording was altered at some point mid-stream.

    “But I doubt that Bobby Epstein poured a hundred grand into this venture if he didn’t think it would work.”

    There’s a significant difference between Epstein *thinking* it would work and whether it *will* actually work. Also, I’m assuming Epstein is rather well-off, so $100K could basically be pocket change as far as his finances go.

    “Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who voted for the deal, seems to believe that the MLS stadium could be in jeopardy”

    True, but as he noted analysis of it is underway. Also, CM Flannigan isn’t an attorney and may not be fully informed of potential means at the Council’s disposal to challenge the petition’s legality (the mayor and other attorneys on the Council might not have discussed it as of yet – didn’t they just return from their winter recess today?).

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