By Theresa Goffredo
EVERETT — A judge Friday knocked down a challenge to erecting a $62.5 million arena and events center on Hewitt Avenue in downtown Everett, allowing the project to continue without first needing to be put to a public vote.
The judge based his decision on a technicality — maybe the biggest irony in a story not lacking irony after lengthy lawerly debate about the right to vote and voluminous legal paperwork.
Superior Court Judge Larry McKeeman ruled Friday that a citizens initiative aimed at letting people vote on the project was invalid because the petition did not contain certain necessary accompanying documentation.
The arena and events center is expected to open in September 2003.
Citizens for a Better Arena filed the initiative. Earlier this year, the group gathered 3,000 signatures to try and put the initiative on the ballot. On Feb. 19, the initiative was certified by Snohomish County. On Friday, the citizens group got its day in court — a month and a half after the two-block area of buildings at Hewitt and Broadway was demolished.
But in another ironic twist, members of the citizens group still believe they are victorious. In fact, they held a victory party Friday night.
"In all sincerity, I’d like to have our group claim a little credit in making the existing arena a better arena," the group’s spokesman, Michael Cox, said Friday after the judge’s ruling. "There will be hockey there, and it will be exciting, and now we move on to make it the most successful we can."
Before signing off on the project, Everett City Council members agreed to put up $6 million to pay for improvements to the arena, such as extra brick for a more historic look. Council members said they wanted to make those improvements because they were responding to the will of the people.
"We tried to have a voice in the location of the project, and we tried our best, and it didn’t work out, and that’s the way it goes," Cox said. "The message from the court today was that the citizens sat on their rights, and let it be a lesson, we need to be involved sooner and demand that the process be open."
Arena backers and city leaders maintained before Friday’s hearing that the citizens initiative was invalid because it was filed too late in the planning process and that the project was too far along to be put on hold for a vote.
Lawyers for the city and the Everett Public Facilities District, which will run the arena once it opens, cited several legal cases to make their point, including a 1973 state Supreme Court case that allowed construction of the Kingdome to go forward.
In making his decision, McKeeman used the initiative’s Feb. 19 certification date as the watershed date to determine if the citizens filed their initiative beyond the critical point. At that time, several factors in the process had occurred, including the buildings at the Hewitt site had been bought by the city for $13 million; the arena design had been selected; and the Western Hockey League had approved a franchise expansion team for Everett.
Attorney John Keegan, hired by the city to represent it, said there was no other project in the state as far along as the arena.
"It’s more than a shame," Keegan said about filing the initiative in February. "It’s of legal significance that (the citizens group) sat on their legal rights."
Thomas Adams, the attorney representing the citizens group, disagreed, saying that if Friday were the day the initiative had been filed, then it would have been too late. But the date was Feb. 19.
The citizens group is looking into an appeal.
"What we are saying is we don’t have a right to vote," Adams told the judge. "What is it that denies the right? Nearly 3,000 have asked for that opportunity."
But ardent hockey fan Ron Olsen attended Friday’s hearing, saying he didn’t care about the vote question.
"If the judge rules for the hockey arena, this will be the best birthday present I could get," he said.
Happy birthday, Ron.
You can call Herald Writer Theresa Goffredo at 425-339-3097
or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.