A hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in a lawsuit filed by residents who want to renovate Evanston’s Civic Center seeking to bump from the ballot a referendum question that asks whether voters want to spend $31 million to do the job.

A hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in a lawsuit filed by residents who want to renovate Evanston’s Civic Center seeking to bump from the ballot a referendum question that asks whether voters want to spend $31 million to do the job.

The Friends of the Civic Center collected petition signatures to place a competing renovation referendum on the ballot — one that does not specify a price tag for the job.

In response Evanston aldermen authorized the ballot question with the price tag — even though they’ve since conceded that renovations might be carried out for substantially less money than the figure they hastily grabbed from a consultant’s report.

John Kennedy, an organizer of the Friends group, said group members filed suit after the aldermen rebuffed efforts to reach agreement on a price tag for renovations, which the Friends have estimated could be done for between $7 million and $13 million.

He said the city council’s ballot question was designed to create confusion among the voters and muddy the meaning of any outcome.

“We’re going to force them to back up the $31 million figure they used,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Aldermen have said that even $13 million would be more than the city’s entire annual capital improvement budget, but Mr. Kennedy suggested that the city could issue bonds and finance the cost over 30 years, reducing the annual payments to a manageable amount.

The aldermen have proposed selling the Civic Center to a real estate developer who would renovate the building as condominiums and build additional homes on the site.

They’ve argued that by creating a tax increment financing district for the property the sale price of the land plus the new property tax revenue captured from the residential uses could finance the cost of a new civic center building.

But Mr. Kennedy said construction costs for new city halls in Chicago area communities in recent years have run between $350 and $400 per square foot, which he asserts would be much more expensive than a renovation project.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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1 Comment

  1. Lawsuit comes to halt; debate continues
    As readers may have heard, Judge Susan Fox Gillis denied the plaintiffs’ request for relief and dismissed the case referred to above. Focusing on the case coming before her as an injunction request rather than a standard election case, the judge found that the plaintiffs had not proved “irreparable harm” on an advisory referendum. The City, through Corporation Counsel Jack Siegel, argued that the $31M figure was only of of “many options and scenarios,” and that the Council was simply asking the voters for “advice” on that scenario. The judge seemed to accept that and, in that context, found that the question was “not confusing or vague.”

    However the Court specifically did not address or rule on the plaintiffs’ principal charge, that the $31M number is misleading, or that the second referendum impacts and impinges on the first one. In that respect, the Court’s finding was difficult to understand. You can only find “no harm” if you find that the two referenda are independent and unrelated. However, the City’s current leaflet states that Referendum #2 is in “response” to Referendum #1. #2 is clearly aimed at undercutting #1 — i.e., torpedoing the plaintiffs’ efforts.

    Nor did the Court want to address the City’s new leaflet. Had the Court done so, it’d be difficult to reconcile the discrepancy between what is being promoted and what the underlying figures show. So, while plaintiffs disagreed with the result, they regard it as, at worst, an inconclusive result, and will not appeal.

    The position taken by the City in court, in order to win, now puts the City in the awkward position of claiming it’s simply asking the voters for “advice” on a number that it doesn’t believe in, deriving from a scenario that has a different number for a bottom line, and that plaintiffs and the Friends of the Civic Center don’t believe has to be spent. Moreover, the City admitted in open court — under questioning and prompting from the judge — that there are numerous options, INCLUDING the sale of some of the Civic Center parking lot — which is what the plaintiffs have been saying all along.

    Unlike a baseball field, what occurs in a courtroom or a legislative body is not always as simple as a W or L. The action brought more facts and truth into the daylight, and showed that the two sides’ positions ultimately may not be that far apart.

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