AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just days after the November election, opponents of the Major League Soccer stadium slated for Austin are trying to get the stadium deal on the ballot in May of 2019.
Back in August, Austin City Council voted 7- 4 to negotiate a deal with Precourt Sports Ventures to build a $200 million stadium and rent it from the city at McKalla Place in North Austin.
Now, 20 paid canvassers are challenging that deal by gathering signatures for the newly-formed Political Action Committee Fair Play Austin. The PAC is funded by chairman of Circuit of the Americas Bobby Epstein.
Epstein is constructing a United Soccer League stadium at COTA with games set to start in 2019.
Previously Epstein had poured his money into the IndyAustin PAC, but then withdrew after IndyAustin created a political video that showed an image of Pepe the Frog (an Anti-Defamation League-recognized hate symbol).
“They felt like, intentional or unintentional, for personal reasons, they did not want to be affiliated with IndyAustin after they’d made that ad,” explained Nikelle Meade, General Counsel for Fair Play Austin. She added that Fair Play was a way to “pick up the torch” and continue efforts to challenge the stadium deal.
Linda Curtis with IndyAustin explained her PAC still has volunteers gathering signatures to oppose the stadium deal, but they are not a part of Fair Play. Curtis said that the petition IndyAustin is having voters sign is the same one Fair Play Austin is using. The only difference is the names of the PACs affiliated.
The Fair Play petition would require a supermajority of city council as well as voter approval for any deal regarding the sale or leasing of city land. There is an exception for longstanding Austin events like the Austin City Limits Music Festival and the Trail of Lights, which have been going on prior to January 1, 2018.
Meade said her group is not discouraged by the failure of the two petition-led efforts on the ballot before Austin voters this November, Propositions J and K.
Videos show misleading information from canvassers
The Fair Play petition has gotten attention recently because of several videos of canvassers paid by the PAC which are being shared online. In one of those videos, a canvasser approaches Mark Littlefield, a lobbyist who works for Precourt Ventures, on the UT campus and tried to convince Littlefield to sign the petition.
But the canvasser incorrectly suggests that the petition is to build an MLS stadium in Austin.
In the video Littlefield asks the canvasser, “the soccer stadium deal didn’t pass?”
The canvasser replies, “It didn’t pass so we’re trying to get it on the ballot now again.”
Littlefield was riding a dockless scooter at the time and had his phone out to end the scooter ride, so he used his phone to record the exchange with the canvasser. He had heard rumors about interactions like his happening but never expected for it to happen to him firsthand.
In a second video a female canvasser incorrectly suggests to an unidentified woman that the petition will not apply to the MLS Precourt Venue.
“This deal is unpopular in and of itself, so there is no reason for petitioners to give inaccurate information to get signatures,” Nikelle Meade said in response to these videos.
Fair Play Austin watched these videos and said they are working with supervisors to make sure the petitioners don’t provide incorrect information again.
Fair Play also told KXAN that the male canvasser has since been fired and that none of the signatures he collected would go to their totals, though the petitions he collected will be submitted, “with the others since those citizens have the right to have their voices heard on the issue.”
The PAC added that it pulled all of its canvassers out of the field on November 7 and they all received additional training. Two canvassers who are currently out of town won’t be allowed to go back into the field until they receive that training, too.
Tension continues even after city decides to negotiate
Council Member Leslie Pool of District 7 said this petition effort was news to her when KXAN asked her about it on Thursday.
“But it’s entirely within their right to have a petition campaign and put a petition on the ballot, I have no problems with that,” Pool said.
Pool was one of the council members who opposed the deal with Precourt.
She also expressed frustration that members of the community can’t view the contract or “term sheet” for the deal, “the council voted 7-4 to leave it that way which I continue to think was a bad decision.”
But Precourt lobbyist Mark Littlefield feels the council spent a lot of time and effort finalizing this deal and their decision should stand.
“Council has already gone through those votes and affirmed the terms of this deal,” Littlefield said. “This petition effort isn’t about trying to give the voters a chance to vote on it, this is about people who have another soccer team at Circuit of the Americas who are trying to blow up this deal.”
He added that Precourt may strike up an effort to find voters who signed the Fair Play petition mistakenly.
“What I’m most concerned about right now is that there are people who might have signed this petition thinking they were doing something that would help bring soccer to Austin,” Littlefield said.
He also worries that the petition could have unexpected consequences for other sports venues or events in Austin.
Who will be Austin’s MLS team?
Littlefield said Precourt’s plan is still to bring an MLS stadium to Austin in 2021. There is still some question about which team.
The owner of the Cleveland Browns recently expressed interest in buying the rights to the Crew to keep them in Columbus. Littlefield explained that there is a window of time for the investor to accomplish that. If he does, the Crew would stay in Columbus and a new team would come to Austin. But if the Columbus deal is not successful, the Crew could still come to Austin, Littlefield said.
He also noted that it’s possible Austin can support both a USL and an MLS team.
“Maybe it could work, maybe there could be a way for both things to happen,” he said.
But then Littlefield added, “for right now, there is definitely an effort by that side over there to undermine this effort.”