The official who oversees municipal elections in Livermore has sued a campaign group alleging that their formal rebuttal argument for the downtown redevelopment initiative measure on the November 2020 ballot contains "false and misleading statements."
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 30 in Alameda County Superior Court by Livermore city clerk Sarah Bunting against leaders from the Friends of Livermore citizen group, is the latest battleground in the debate over the future of downtown Livermore.
The initiative measure, which will ask voters next year to approve an alternative redevelopment proposal for the downtown area, is backed by the Friends. The signed authors of the rebuttal argument, who are also Friends members, are named in the lawsuit as respondents: William Dunlop, Jeanette King, Jeffrey Kaskey, Calvin Wood and Jose Barrientos.
Livermore residents will vote on two downtown ballot measures next year.
A related referendum on the March 2020 ballot seeks to reverse the Livermore City Council's development agreement with a hotelier to build a 135-room boutique hotel with a rooftop patio on Railroad Avenue next to the Bankhead Theater.
In line with the council-approved Downtown Specific Plan, city leaders and stakeholders also envision revitalizing the area with more parking, shopping and retail, a blackbox theater, a science museum, a community park and 130 units of affordable housing.
Some Friends members who also belong to Citizens for a Livermore Central Park -- which formed earlier this year and is led by key members from Friends of Livermore and Better Livermore -- successfully collected enough signatures from registered local voters this summer to place the referendum on the March ballot.
The Friends group wants to move the hotel to the west side of Railroad Avenue and build a large park next to the Bankhead instead, among key concepts in the so-called "Central Park Plan" -- the subject of the November 2020 initiative measure.
The rebuttal argument, submitted by initiative supports to appear in the voter guide ahead of the November election, apparently raised concerns over accuracy for Bunting, who is the city's designated election official.
In her lawsuit, Bunting asks the court to issue a peremptory writ of mandate ordering the group to "amend or delete the false and misleading words and statements" in their rebuttal.
Livermore city attorney Jason Alcala and lawyers from San Francisco law firm Richards, Watson and Gershon assisting the case contend in court documents that "arguments in the city's official sample ballot materials will mislead the voters by implying that the elections official and the city have sanctioned the characterization of real parties' political arguments as 'facts.'"
Representatives for the city did not respond to requests for comment, but the lawsuit called several of the Friends' ballot rebuttal statements false or "entirely misleading," including that the city "counts walkways between buildings and the Blackbox Theater site as 'open space'" in their own plan. The suit also denies the claim that officials "spent $500,000 on outreach, but ignored 75% of respondents who wanted hotel on the west side of Livermore Avenue."
"The fact that some elements of a land use plan adopted by the Livermore City Council based on input from throughout the community did not meet with the approval of these five (respondents) does not mean that there was no public input," the lawsuit stated.
Barry Fadem, one of the attorneys representing Friends of Livermore, denounced the city's challenge.
"Ballot arguments are exactly that; they're their opinion," Fadem told the Weekly. "California law gives us the right to make the statements contained in the ballot argument and they're not false or misleading in any way, period."
"The lawsuit has absolutely no merit and we expect it to be dismissed by the court," he added.
The respondents have until the end of the month to file a response in court; a Jan. 10 case management conference is listed on the Alameda County Superior Court website but Fadem said he couldn't confirm the details of that hearing.