4,212 signatures needed to put measure on ballot

Baseball stadium foes formally launched their petition drive to block construction of a ballpark along the Clark Fork River Tuesday.

"I think it's hard to imagine we can't get 4,200 signatures in 30 days," said Alan Blakley, attorney for Fair Play Missoula, the organization opposing the stadium project. "We have 150 people who've signed up to carry petitions already."

The paperwork must still pass a legal review before any signatures can be gathered. City Attorney Jim Nugent said Tuesday the petition's statement of purpose is too long by state law and must be rewritten. Nevertheless, he said, he expects to be finished with it by the end of the week.

The petition asks voters to call a referendum on an ordinance the Missoula City Council passed Monday. The ordinance declares the city's intention to spend about $1 million in urban redevelopment funds on parking lots, trails and road improvements at the stadium site, which lies west of McCormick Park.

If supporters gather at least 4,212 signatures by May 24, the petition will force suspension of the ordinance until the referendum. State law says that shall take place at the next city election, which is November 2001. However, the City Council could call a special election before then.

Exactly what a suspension would do is in doubt. Mayor Mike Kadas said Tuesday it would only stall the city's contribution to the project. The private organization Play Ball Missoula is responsible for raising another $7 million from private sources to fund construction.

"We've entered a development agreement to build a public stadium that isn't a redevelopment project," Kadas said. "It's within the urban redevelopment area, but so are any number of other buildings that don't have anything to do with redevelopment projects."

Blakley argued that the ordinance controls all activity on the site. By his interpretation of state law, the city must have an open call for development proposals for the site before choosing one, and the city skipped that step. That means the city has illegally made contracts with Play Ball Missoula to build a stadium that hasn't been properly approved, he said. The citizens, therefore, should have a chance to ratify or reject what the council did.

The stadium project has aggravated some nearby residents, who claim it will increase noise and traffic in their neighborhood, is inappropriate use of city land and funds, and was approved in a process that discounted or excluded their concerns.

Kadas said the petition drive could hurt future projects' chances of getting done in Missoula.

"If we succumb to having to have a public vote on everything someone disagrees with, it reduces complicated issues to simple sound-bite kinds of positions," Kadas said. "It has the potential of putting such a damper for interested groups bringing projects forward with their own time and energy.

"It tends to discourage doing anything in the downtown or along the river. I publicly want to encourage people not to sign it. We've had very strong majorities (at City Council) for this project. You ought to place some faith in the people you elected."

Blakley said if a project generates this much controversy and opposition, he thought it natural that elected leaders would look to the people for a second opinion.

"I don't know why they wouldn't want to call a special election and let the people confirm what they've said," Blakley said.

Kadas said he didn't plan any formal counter-campaign to block the signature-gathering.

"We have taken this process a year and a half now, and we need to wrap up the city government side of it," he said. "I'm not going to let all the work we've done on this go by the by, but I really think my time could be spent better on other things."

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