BVHP referendum remains in legal limbo

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By Sarah Phelan
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This map shows just how huge the redevelopment project ( the yellow area) in Bayview Hunters Point has grown.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Patrick Mahoney heard arguments in the Bayview Hunters Point redevelopment referendum case—then told both sides to file briefs more focused on the narrower question: namely, which documents should signature gatherers have attached to their petitions last summer, as they tried to put the Redevelopment Agency’s plan for Bayview Hunters Point to a public vote?

Last summer, petitioners—carrying a copy of a newly passed ordinance in which the Board of Supervisors authorized the redevelopment of 14,000 acres in BVHP—gathered more than 30,000 signatures—and therefore believed that they had succeeded in their quest to put the project to a vote on the November 2006 ballot.

But the City Attorney opined that they should have attached a copy of the BVHP redevelopment plan to the petition, and not just a copy of the ordinance that the Board had approved. As a result of the City Attorney’s opinion, the City Clerk rejected the petition. This rejection triggered a lawsuit from a group called the Defend BVHP Committee, who argued that the City Attorney’s opinion meant that they should have carted around documents the size of two phone books---a demand they deemed neither realistic nor fair, given that the City didn’t attach all these documents o the ordinance that the Board approved.

At the time, the City Attorney argued that the documents were “incorporated by reference” (they were mentioned by file name and number, and copies were available to the Supervisors before the ordinance passed.)

Asked about today’s hearing Alexis Truchon, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office, told the Guardian that the judge’s ruling.” “is trying to get down to the letter of the law.”

Michael Grob, attorney for the Defend BVHP Committee, said that the judge seemed “genuinely concerned that this is a very difficult and intellectual problem.”

Acknowledging that “the physical burden –in this case the paperwork—is not something the law recognizes,” Grob insisted that the bigger issue was that the City never attached the plans to the ordinance that the City passed.

“So, if the City didn’t attach the plans, should that burden be placed on the petitioners?” Grob asked. “You’d think you could simply use what the City gave you, since they didn’t attach all this razzamatazz. Instead, you have the City passing judgment as to whether our referendum attempt passes muster. With so many documents involved in redevelopment plans, you could always argue that some part of the text was left out. For us, the point is, did people signing the petition know that by so doing they were objecting to a major 14,000-acre redevelopment project. The answer is yes, they knew that they were objecting to a major increase of land.”

Another issue emerging from this case is whether the City can simply incorporate plans by reference, or whether it, too, must attach the whole kit and caboodle, when the Board of Supervisors is considering ordinance. Are citizens be held to more rigorous standards than their elected representatives? And if that is indeed the case, do such rules need modification, especially in the face of several vast and ongoing redevelopment projects around the Bay? With the judge requesting new briefs by May 18, and a ruling expected within 90 days, stay tuned.