Opponents of a plan to build a $500 million gambling and entertainment complex along New York Avenue in Northeast are expected to file a lawsuit today in D.C. Superior Court to stall attempts to put the measure on the November ballot.
Members of the United Methodist Church, community activists and the city government watchdog group DCWatch, are challenging a June 9 ruling issued by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics that the District of Columbia Lottery Expansion Initiative is a proper issue to be decided by voters.
The group also cites irregularities in the process of putting the question before D.C. voters.
“This is over the top,” said Dorothy Brizill, who runs DCWatch. “You needn’t even get to the issue of what the initiative is about to be outraged.”
John Ray, a former D.C. Council member and attorney for local businessman Pedro Alfonso, who wants to bring the complex to Northeast, said the opponents have no grounds to challenge the board’s ruling.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a frivolous lawsuit and we’ll be in court Monday and try and get it dismissed,” Mr. Ray said. “I don’t know what impact it will have at the end of the day. Obviously, the time period is short. Any challenge is going to create a delay.”
Mr. Ray said project investors have made no contingency plans should the court overturn the board’s ruling. “They’re not thinking in that direction,” he said.
Mr. Alfonso, who is chief executive officer of Dynamic Concepts, and other supporters want to seek voter approval for a 12-acre complex with 3,500 video lottery terminals on New York Avenue NE, between Montana Avenue and Bladensburg Road.
Mrs. Brizill said her opposition to the project stems from the way the initiative’s supporters were able to “hijack” the D.C. Register. The register is the official government publication detailing changes in laws, notice of public hearings and proposed legislation.
She specifically cites the way public notification of the initiative was printed in two “supplemental” editions to the register.
Proponents filed the initiative April 22 with the Board of Elections, which must approve such measures for ballot consideration. After the D.C. attorney general and the D.C. Council’s legal counsel opposed the initiative, the group submitted revised project plans May 28, after the original plans appeared in the city register.
Having missed the publication deadline of the June 4 edition of the register, the revised plans and the public hearing notice appeared in what is called a supplement. The supplement, also published June 4, later was determined to have been funded and sent by a backer of the initiative.
The Office of the Secretary of the District, who is responsible for publishing the register, called the supplement unofficial, but the Board of Elections, at its June 9 meeting, approved the initiative as fit for the ballot.
Ken McGhie, the legal counsel to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, said he was aware at the time of the board’s meeting that the first supplement was not official but that it did not affect the board’s work.
“Publication in the D.C. Register at that time is not a requirement,” Mr. McGhie said.
Two days after the initiative was approved by the Board of Elections, a second supplement to the register was published, containing the text of the initiative, and that of another titled “Child Support Ends at Age 18.”
“Had they said the June 11 one, where we formulated the short title and the summary, was unofficial, then there would be no way we could go forward,” Mr. McGhie said.
Sherryl Hobbs Newman, the secretary of the District, had said the June 11 supplement was official.
“We had a direct request letter from council member Vincent Orange that we print a supplement that contained two initiatives in it,” said Regina Williams, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Newman. “We will only print a supplement upon written request from an agency head or top government official.”
Miss Williams said it is rare but not unprecedented that a supplement is printed. The last time a supplement was printed was in January, at the request of the Executive Office of the Mayor.
In his June 10 letter to the D.C. Office of Documents and Administrative Issuances, Mr. Orange said he took no position on either of the initiatives but that accelerating the petition process would give proponents a “fighting chance” to collect enough signatures to get the questions before voters before a July 6 deadline.
Opponents argue that D.C. law is specific on who can ask for a supplement to be printed and that Mr. Orange, Ward 5 Democrat, had no authority to make such a request.
According to D.C. law, petitions cannot be distributed until the court challenge is resolved. To get the initiative on the ballot, backers must collect signatures from 17,500 persons, or 5 percent of the city’s registered voters.
If the signatures are not submitted by July 6, the initiative will not go on a ballot until the general election in 2006.
Officials involved with the $500 million initiative say funds for the proposed facility would be provided by a team of private local and national investors. The project also would include a 600- to 800-room hotel, a conference center, a bowling alley, a movie theater and retail shops. The facility would be called the Capital Horizon Entertainment Complex.
Mr. Alfonso’s group has estimated the complex would generate $765 million annually.
Under Mr. Alfonso’s proposal, 25 percent of the profits, or about $190 million, from the video lottery terminals would be earmarked for D.C. residents.
The proposal recommends that the city’s revenue be used to improve public schools and to assist senior citizens in obtaining prescription drugs.