Council committee balks at baseball stadium referendum

Councilman Samuels wanted a referendum to encourage public debate and awareness about a new baseball stadium. With that referendum all but dead, he’s hoping the debate lives on.

Diamon exterior

Update #2 — July 2, 2013; 10:35 AM

City Council’s Organizational Development Committee voted 6-3 yesterday to recommend a proposed baseball stadium referendum (see below) not be included on the November ballot.

“It’s all but dead,” said Council President Charles Samuels (2nd District), sponsor of the proposed referendum, about its chances of getting a public vote. “It’s highly unlikely that I’m going to flip two votes to get it on the November ballot” when the full Council votes on the proposal next week.

Samuels said he was “disappointed” by the decision. “The referendum has gotten folks really excited and engaged” about discussing the future of Richmond baseball.

One of the opponents of the stadium referendum is Councilman Jon Baliles (2nd District). “I’m not a big fan of referendum government,” said Baliles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “California is a prime example. It’s a basket case.”

Samuels agrees that constant referendums can erode the effectiveness of government, but he added “referendums are available in Virginia, and they have been used” before. Most recently in 2004, when Richmonders voted for a mayor-at-large system (City Council elected mayors until then). Samuels said that certain issues are so important that they’re worth “[taking] to the people” because “not actively seeking public input is an abdication of leadership.”

Prior to last night’s committee ruling, the City held its first public comment on the baseball stadium referendum. “The idea of a referendum excited people and got people thinking, not only about location, but how it should be paid for,” Samuels said. “All sorts of great questions popped up…”

He said most people who spoke supported the referendum. Most also supported building a new stadium on Boulevard and not in Shockoe, a location the Mayor seems to favor.

Samuels said that six council members support keeping a stadium on Boulevard. Additionally, Councilman Parker Agelasto (4th District) said that 85%-95% of constituents who contacted him supported both the referendum and a stadium on Boulevard, according to Samuels.  

But while a stadium referendum is all but dead, public discussion still lives. The final public comment period on the stadium will take place on Monday, July 8th inside Council Chambers at City Hall.

And while no final stadium plan exists, let alone a site or funding arrangement, Samuels still hopes Richmonders will let leaders know what the public prefers. “I think it’s important to remember that we still have an opportunity to continue a discussion and dialogue,” he said.

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Update #1 — July 1, 2013; 10:33 AM

The City of Richmond will host the first public comment regarding the construction of a new baseball stadium and a proposed stadium referendum (see below) tonight in the Council Chambers at City Hall beginning at 5:00 PM.

Additional public comment events are expected in the coming weeks.

City Hall is located at 900 E. Broad Street.

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Original — June 18, 2013

Last night City Council President Charles Samuels (2nd District) released draft legislation (PDF) that he hopes spurs debate on a new baseball stadium and leads to a citywide referendum this November on its location.

Samuels said the public has been largely absent from stadium debate. “This has been an issue that has been [talked] about since 2001,” Samuels said by phone. “But we’ve never really reached out to the public to ask: what do you want?” He believes the proposed referendum will get people talking.

The draft referendum reads:

That no City-owned or City-acquired real estate not located within the area of the city bounded by Interstate 64 / 95 to the north, Hermitage Road to the east, West Leigh Street to the south and North Boulevard to the west shall be used for a baseball stadium or facilities ancillary to a baseball stadium.

Boiled down, Samuels said the question amounts to: “should City property be used to build a stadium?” And while he cautioned that the precise wording of the proposed referendum may change in coming weeks, if it remains more-or-less the same, a YES vote by Richmonders would signal to officials and interested parties alike that the public wants a stadium to remain at the site of The Diamond. A NO vote would, in turn, indicate that the public is open to another location.

But the question posed by the draft referendum omits several secondary questions entangled in the ongoing baseball stadium debate: should The Diamond be replaced outright or merely refurbished? Where else could a stadium go? What amenities do the Flying Squirrels want in a new stadium? How will the stadium be funded?

Samuels intends for the referendum to further a public debate on those matters. “The referendum is a great catalyst for a serious conversation about the ballpark,” he said. “It opens up the conversation that, up until now, various people have discussed [i.e. City officials, Flying Squirrels ownership] but there hasn’t been that community involvement.”

The process of including the citywide referendum on the November ballot will begin Monday, June 24th when referendum legislation will be introduced to Council. It will then go to a Council committee for consideration and recommendation before going back to Council for a full vote. Assuming Council passes the initiative (the referendum dies if it doesn’t), the legislation heads to the Circuit Court who then instructs the Registrar to include the referendum on the November ballot.

And while public vote on any eventual referendum will serve only as an advisory and not binding role to City officials, it’s patron hopes public consideration of the referendum encourages broader, meaningful debate.

“I want to know what the people think more than telling people what I think,” Samuels said. “This is a great opportunity for people to use their voice, to use their vote, to let leaders know what they want.”

Samuels encourages members of the public to send him letters, emails, and faxes.

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photo by Eli Christman

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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