Civil rights advocates seek injunction in federal court against Dallas convention hotel construction

By Dave Levinthal/Reporter

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1:57 PM on Fri., Mar. 13, 2009 | Permalink
A group of Dallas civil rights advocates, led by the Revs. Peter Johnson and Ronald Wright, is asking a U.S. federal court to bar Dallas City Hall from beginning construction of a Dallas Convention Center hotel.
The group, which filed a lawsuit today in U.S. federal court, wants hotel construction delayed until Dallas conducts a scheduled May 9 referendum on a City Charter amendment proposition seeking to prohibit Dallas from owning a convention center hotel, as it plans to do.
The lawsuit lists the City of Dallas, Dallas Convention Center Hotel Development Corporation and Mayor Tom Leppert as defendants and accuses them of failing to “submit for preclearance from the United States Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia their plan to ignore the pending Charter Amendment election called for by Plaintiffs and other minority citizens of Dallas, and to commence the sale of potentially encumbering bonds and construction of the Dallas Convention Center Hotel.”
Says James Vagnini, a lawyer for Wright and Johnson: “This is a slap in the face to voters what the mayor is trying to do. This issue should go to a vote in May without questions about the outcome mattering.”
(CLICK HERE to read a copy of the federal complaint.)
Leppert blasted the lawsuit, calling it “ridiculous.”
“The Dallas City Council just voted to put the proposition on the ballot for the May 9th city elections,” the mayor wrote in a statement. “Additionally, the election has already been submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance as is required by law. We are going forward with the vote.”
Dallas’ First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers vowed to aggressively fight the suit, saying the city will likely file a motion to dismiss it.
“We strongly deny that the city is or will be violating the Voting Rights Act,” Bowers said.
It is unclear whether actual construction of the convention hotel will begin before the May 9 vote, although pre-construction demolition work has already commenced on the hotel site, bounded by Young, Market and Lamar streets downtown.
Leppert and many other city officials have said they want construction to begin as quickly as possible — a stance that’s drawn sharp criticism from hotel opponents.
But a turbulent bond market may prevent the city from seeking financing for the more than $500 million project. Dallas is seeking a 5.5 percent interest rate on revenue bonds that would be used to construct the hotel — a rate it is unable to procure today.
Dave Cook, Dallas’ chief financial officer, said earlier this week that Dallas wouldn’t be prepared to sell bonds for at least several more weeks, and possibly several more months. “A lot depends on the market,” he said.
Today’s legal action is the third time in a month that hotel opponents have taken action against the city in federal court.
In February, the Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel organization sought in federal court to block the Dallas City Council from approving hotel developing and operating agreements.
The court rejected one complaint and Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel voluntarily withdrew another, and ultimately, the Dallas City Council approved the hotel’s development and operating agreements.
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