Streetcar opponents threaten legal action

The leader of the group organizing a petition drive in an attempt to stop the downtown Milwaukee streetcar project says the group plans to file a lawsuit because city officials are not giving the public enough time to complete the petition drive.

“It’s clear (city officials) are going to do everything they can to stop the voice of the people,” said Chris Kliesmet, executive administrator of the CRG Network.

The petition drive is being organized by the CRG Network for a group of streetcar opponents led by Ald. Robert Donovan and Ald. Joe Davis Sr.

The proposed $124 million streetcar project would run through downtown and parts of the Historic Third Ward and the East Side. The cost to build the system would be paid for with about $65 million in federal funds and about $59 million from tax incremental financing districts.

In an attempt to stop the streetcar project, opponents are circulating petitions to pass direct legislation that would require public approval via referendum for any rail project in Milwaukee that costs more than $20 million. The streetcar opponents need to gather 31,000 signatures to force a referendum vote that would ask voters if a referendum should be required for rail projects in the city.

The question is: when do the petitions need to be turned in?

The Common Council is scheduled to vote on the streetcar at its Feb. 10 meeting. The council approved the streetcar project at its Jan. 21 meeting, but final action was delayed until Feb. 10 by a parliamentary procedure maneuver by opponents of the project.

Direct legislation cannot undo action already taken by the Common Council. Opponents of the streetcar hoped to submit their petitions before the Feb. 10 meeting.

If the petitions are turned in and certified before the Feb. 10 meeting does that stop the council’s action on the streetcar? City Clerk Jim Owczarski said he has asked the city attorney’s office for a legal opinion to answer that question. The city attorney’s office is still reviewing the matter.

However, streetcar opponets may be running out of time to not only gather signatures on petitions but to get them certified before Feb. 10. By law the offices of the city clerk and the election commission have 15 days to certify petitions. The signatures need to be counted and officials need to verify that the signatures are city residents of voting age.

It is possible that the petition certification process could take less than 15 days, Owczarski said. But the process clearly takes some time. If the petitions are submitted shortly before the Feb. 10 Common Council meeting there will not be enough time to certify the petitions before the council votes on the streetcar project.

Even if the petitions are submitted and certified by Feb. 10 the direct legislation proposal would ordinarily be introduced to the council and then referred to committee to begin the review process. In the meantime the council could approve the streetcar project.

So far about 17,000 signatures have been gathered on petitions, Kliesmet said.

Ordinarily the public would have 60 days to circulate petitions for direct legislation. But the petition drive against the streetcar began in early January.

Kliesmet said his group plans to file a lawsuit in attempt to stop the streetcar project if opponents are able to submit petitions with 31,000 signatures within 60 days of the beginning of the petition drive.

In order to provide enough time for a direct legislation matter to go through the normal formal review process opponents of the streetcar project needed to submit petitions “months ago” if they wanted to stop the project, said Ald. Robert Bauman, a strong supporter of the streetcar project. Until the direct legislation process is complete nothing legally prevents the Common Council from taking action on any matter before it, including the proposed streetcar project, Bauman said.

“If they want to sue us, we will defend ourselves,” he said.

CRG Network also plans to file a criminal lawsuit for misuse of public funds alleging that city officials have spent tax money on a public relations campaign to support the streetcar project, Kliesmet said.

“This baby is going to end up in court because (city officials that support the streetcar) are terrified of what will happen if the voice of the people is heard in a referendum,” said Kliesmet. “This is an 80 percent issue. This is precisely what direct legislation was meant for.”

The streetcar has been debated for years in Milwaukee. The current petition drive is more about politics to create an issue against Mayor Tom Barrett in the next election, Bauman said.

“(The petition drive) is entirely phony,” Bauman said. “This has nothing to do with the streetcar.”

Even if the petition drive is not completed in time to stop the streetcar project, opponents of the streetcar could end up forcing a referendum for future expansions of the project (if they cost more than $20 million), which Barrett says he plans to pursue.

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