A public vote on a convention center hotel: is Metro trying to pull a fast one?

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

I wrote recently about the absurdity of building a government-subsidized hotel to support the Oregon Convention Center.

Now it looks like Metro is trying to work an end-run through the Oregon Legislature to prevent voters from having a say on the project.

State law (ORS 268.310 says a district, such as Metro, can’t construct new facilities “unless the electors of the district first approve the financing of the facilities…” Senate Bill 64 would amend the law to allow the construction of new facilities to go forward if ,“The facility is acquired or constructed pursuant to an intergovernmental agreement under ORS 190.003 to 190.130.”

On Feb. 24, 2015, Metro President Tom Hughes told the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue that the bill is no big deal. It relates “strictly to clarifying existing statutory intent regarding Metro’s authority under its home-rule charter,” he said. The bill “merely cleans up awkward word placement in the current statute that has been the basis for serial lawsuits by opponents of the Oregon Convention Center hotel whose goal is to prevent the project from moving forward,” he added.

But John DiLorenzo , a partner at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, took a decidedly different position on the bill. DiLorenzo represents one of a group of hotel owners and managers who have opposed taxpayer subsidies for the proposed Hyatt hotel. He told the committee the bill “is an effort to subvert the judicial process” and “would deprive voters of any opportunity to vote on financing for any new construction projects built by Metro.”

Dilorenzo expressed the view that the courts would ultimately agree that residents had a right to vote on the hotel project . “Please do not deprive the voters of their last chance to avoid what could be another government subsidized albatross,” he said.

Ignoring DiLorenzo’s concerns, the Senate Committee On Finance and Revenue reported out the bill by a 3-2 vote, with Democrats Mark Hass, Chris Edwards and Chuck Riley voting in favor and Republicans Herman Baertschiger Jr. and Brian Boquist voting against. On March 4, 2015, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 20-10, with all the no votes coming from Republicans.

Now it’s up to the House.

If the bill is just minor housekeeping, what’s the hurry? Given the controversy over the Convention Center hotel, and the ongoing lawsuits to require a public vote, the House should stay out of the mess. If, as Hughes insists, S.B. 64 doesn’t really change the law, but just clarifies it, killing the bill should make no difference to Metro. If the bill would deprive voters of the chance to vote on the hotel, as DiLorenzo alleges, it’s an insult to the public and undeserving of passage.

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