Appellate court partially affirms lower court’s ruling on ‘Loop Road’ lawsuit
December 5, 2018
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — An appellate court has issued a decision on an attempt to salvage a 2016 ballot measure that would have required voter approval prior to any city support of the so-called "Loop Road" project.
California's 3rd Appellate District on Monday affirmed a lower court's decision to prevent South Lake Tahoe resident Laurel Ames and local attorney Bruce Grego from intervening in a case dealing with the constitutionality of the 2016 ballot measure, Measure T.
The lower court ultimately ruled the ballot measure was "vague to the point of being unenforceable."
The appellate court, however, did not consider the ruling itself, because it concluded that Ames and Grego lacked standing to appeal the judgement on the constitutionality of Measure T.
Rather, the two only had standing to appeal the lower court's decision to exclude them from the final proceedings.
"I'm disappointed," Grego told the Tribune. "I think the [appellate court's] focus should have been on a different level."
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Two-year legal battle
The legal saga dates back to 2016 when a group of residents, including Ames and Grego, started a ballot initiative. They collected enough signatures to put the measure, then dubbed Measure T, on the November 2016 ballot.
Not to be confused with 2018's Measure T, which deals with vacation home rentals, 2016's Measure T prevented the city from "taking any action, adopting ordinance, making any resolution that approves or supports the Tahoe Transportation District Project known as 'The US 50/South Shore Community Revitalization Project' (also known as the Loop Road project) that includes realigning US Hwy. 50 unless a specific proposal for re-alignment is first approved by the voters within the City of South Lake Tahoe in an election held for such purpose."
At that point, then-candidate Jason Collin filed a lawsuit against the city to try and prevent the measure from appearing on the 2016 ballot.
In the lawsuit, Collin claimed Measure T was “flawed” and an unlawful interference of the city of South Lake Tahoe’s authority.
The city agreed with Collin's claim and did not challenge the lawsuit, which named Ames, Grego and several others as "real parties in interest."
Despite Collin's attempt, El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Robert Wagoner decided the measure would stay on the ballot.
As for the constitutionality of Measure T, Wagoner said that could be decided after the election if the measure passed.
It did pass, with 59.94 percent voting in favor of the measure.
At that point, Collin filed a second lawsuit but did not name Ames, Grego or the others as "real parties in interest."
As the appellate court noted, Collin was not required to name them as "parties of interest," but they were provided the ability to seek timely intervention if they wanted to participate.
This was made clear, the appellate court wrote, at a Dec. 5, 2016 hearing, which Grego was present for. At the hearing Judge Wagoner said he would consider on Jan. 27, 2017 a potential motion from Ames and Grego to intervene in the case.
On Jan. 25, 2017, legal representation for Ames and Grego asked the judge to continue the hearing for several reasons, including "unusual weather conditions."
The Jan. 27 hearing went on as scheduled, but Ames and Grego’s lawyer was not present at the start of the hearing. The judge denied the request to continue the hearing.
However, after their lawyer phoned into the court, the judge allowed the lawyer to argue for a continuation and intervention.
Despite those arguments, which included the severe winter weather impacting the region, Wagoner said the court had set an established timeline and there was no excuse for missing the deadline.
"The briefing was to be done and in all candor it was before the snow hit and everything. And I received nothing. I received no briefing. I received no request for an extension of time, nothing until the letter [the] day before yesterday requesting that this matter be continued," Wagoner said before rejecting their request.
Ames and Grego filed their appeal with California's 3rd Appellate District nearly one year later.
Among the arguments in the appeal, Ames and Grego stated they never properly requested intervention because "they were denied proper notice” from the court and from Collin.
However, the appellate court noted Grego's presence at the Dec. 5, 2016 hearing during which he was properly noticed.
"Because we find no error, we affirm the court's rulings regarding proponents' intervention and dismiss the remainder of their appeal," the appellate court wrote.
Collin did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment Tuesday evening.
Grego told the Tribune he had hoped the court would focus on the rights and role of citizens in the democratic process.
"I think the court should have honored what the public accomplished."
He has not decided on his next action. Grego could petition the California Supreme Court for review, although there is no guarantee the court will review the case — it generally reviews less than 5 percent of all cases sent to it, according to the state.
Another option, Grego said, would be to wait and see what the new City Council chooses to do.
November's election saw three incumbents swept out of office, replaced by three first-time councilors.
Grego, who also ran for City Council in the most recent election, said he is hopeful council will put a question before voters within six months.
That question could be: a revised version of the original Measure T; a question asking voters if they approve of the US 50/South Shore Community Revitalization Project recently approved by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency; or something altogether different.
"My opinion is I think we'll see a special election in the next six months," Grego said.
"I don't know how they'll formulate it."
The new City Council is set to be sworn it Tuesday, Dec. 11.