Judge upholds Loop Road Project ballot measure in councilor candidate’s lawsuit against city
An El Dorado County judge ruled in favor of upholding the ballot measure that, if passed in November’s election, would prohibit South Lake Tahoe City Council from approving or supporting the proposed Loop Road Project. The initiative calls for decisions regarding the project to be voted on by city residents.
The ruling is in regards to a lawsuit filed on July 14 by Jason Collin, Barton Home Health & Hospice’s director, which attempted to block the citywide vote in November’s election. The lawsuit was filed four days before the city council unanimously voted to have Measure T put on the ballot.
Collin’s lawsuit, which is pointed at the city and council of South Lake Tahoe, argued that “adopting or presenting to voters a fundamentally flawed ballot initiative measure, which, as drafted, is invalid on its face and, if adopted, would violate state law and unlawfully interfere with the city’s authority as granted by the State Legislature.”
Collin said he is disappointed by the verdict, but mostly is concerned with people understanding what the Loop Road Project and its corresponding ballot measure really entail.
“I still think it’s misleading, and the initiative has some fundamental flaws. I hope people do their homework and find out what information out there is true about the project,” said Collin.
“One, it’s not a city project. It’s a bi-state federal transportation project. The city doesn’t have control over the project, just administrative input. So if the vote goes through, it’s not defined what the city should do. There is no clear direction on the action the city should take.”
Collin also pointed out that it isn’t just the voters of South Lake Tahoe who would be affected by this project.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have a voice in it. There are people in El Dorado and Douglas counties affected by this project that are not included in a city ballot measure.”
Laurel Ames, John Cefalu, Bill Crawford and Bruce Grego were named as “real parties in interest” in Collin’s suit because of their support of the ballot measure, which was brought about by a petition from a community group known as Let Tahoe Decide. The group collected 1,459 signatures.
Grego, a lawyer of 36 years in the Basin, is pleased with the verdict.
“The judge, Judge Wagoner in Dept. 1 in Placerville … said there is a strong public policy interest that the court seeks to protect, which is the citizens right to bring forward initiatives and referendums.”
Austin Sass, South Lake Tahoe’s Mayor Pro Tem, was also in attendance when the judge delivered his verdict.
“There was no discussion by the judge on the ballot measure language. His comments really only had to do with whether the people should get to vote on something that had enough signatures to qualify for the ballot per the election code,” recalled Sass.
“As long as you have enough signatures that are validated by the elections department, anything can go on the ballot. There is no state entity that decides if the ballot measure is enforceable, legal or other. That is left up to the courts.”
City attorney Tom Watson agreed that it is unclear how the council will proceed if the ballot measure is passed.
“The city council had a ministerial duty to place the initiative on the ballot. They did that. However, this initiative is very unclear as to how the council is to proceed on any project if the initiative passes,” said Watson.
“As I stated in both the City Attorney’s summary and impartial analysis, the use of terms like ‘approve’ or ‘support’ require judicial review. For example, such terms may prevent an affordable housing project from getting approved by the city council, if someone alleges that to do so would ‘support’ the Loop Road project.”
Judge Wagoner set a date of Dec. 5 to resume discussion of the city’s course of action if the ballot measure passes.
“As to the request by the city to define what the ballot measure means if it passes, let the vote play out. I feel confident that there will be another lawsuit. It would be more appropriate to discuss this if and when it passes,” stated Wagoner.
DOES THE CITY HAVE SAY?
Susan Alessi, South Lake Tahoe city clerk, told the Tahoe Daily Tribune back in June that the “project is not a project of the city.”
The city council’s approval — as well as that of South Lake Tahoe voters if Measure T passes — is not required for it to move forward.
“City council cannot prevent [Tahoe Transportation District] from proceeding with the project within the city, although dedication and abandonment of rights of way may require council action at a later date. No legislative action of the city can either prevent or authorize the TTD project, as TTD is an independent government agency,” explained Alessi.
“If eminent domain were to be used to acquire city property, however, TTD would need council approval.”
The Loop Road Project is currently under environmental review after it was unanimously approved by TTD’s board of directors in May.