Posted: October 24, 2013 The Confluence Project: City Council leans away from referendum, commits $5M to arts center
By Andrew Dowd Leader-Telegram staff
Article from the Leader-Telegram
The $5 million pledge the city made to a proposed $51.2 million community arts center should not be conditional on a binding referendum, the Eau Claire City Council decided.
The council voted 8-3 Tuesday night on that pledge to the Confluence Project following a failed vote to make that contribution dependent on an April referendum.
"I will not be supporting compromising this pledge, this necessary step to moving forward with this project," Councilman David Klinkhammer said.
Councilman Bob Von Haden and a few others pushed for the referendum requirement, noting a grass-roots effort is afoot to get one on the spring ballot.
"The citizens have asked for it, and I think they have a right to be heard," he said.
At the end of a long meeting, the council voted 10-1 to postpone its consideration of creating its own Confluence Project referendum until its Nov. 12 meeting.
However, an earlier 7-4 vote decided that the city's $5 million pledge should not be contingent on a binding referendum.
Councilman Eric Larsen said that vote shows how city officials are leaning on holding a referendum.
"There was a vote taken there, and that was an indication," he said.
Councilwoman Kathleen Mitchell agreed.
"It was pretty clear how the council stands," she said.
When informed of Tuesday's council actions, referendum effort organizer Mike Bollinger said the Confluence Referendum Committee would be pushing forward with a petition to force a question on the April 1 ballot.
"As the Eau Claire City Council failed to act on a referendum on the confluence project, signature collection will begin soon," he wrote in a news release.
The citizens group would need to gather 3,619 Eau Claire resident signatures within a 60-day period before the Jan. 15 deadline, to get a binding referendum onto the spring ballot.
The group is working on the question they'll want on the ballot before gathering signatures.
City attorney Stephen Nick said the referendum cannot simply put previous City Council votes, including the $5 million pledge made Tuesday, up for reconsideration by city voters.
"If it's on the same topic, it's clear the prior legislation takes precedence," he said, citing Wisconsin case law.
However, that would not prevent referendum backers from devising a question about other aspects of the Confluence Project that have not yet been approved by the city.
The Confluence also is seeking $25 million in state funding and $5 million from Eau Claire County. The rest of the arts center's construction costs are sought from donations and tax credits.
In addition to the arts center, the Confluence Project includes a $26 million privately financed mixed use building with student housing, commercial space for shops and restaurants, and underground parking.
The project also is seeking $5.9 million in city financing for site work and underground utility upgrades, which was not included in the pledge made Tuesday.