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Pair sues over effort to reverse Detroit arena funding

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A pair behind an effort to overturn an ordinance authorizing $34.5 million in public funding for the Detroit Pistons’ move downtown have filed a federal lawsuit against Detroit’s City Clerk, elections director and City Council on claims petition signatures they submitted were unfairly rejected.

The signatures, obtained by Highland Park resident Robert Davis and John Lauve of Holly, were turned down Friday by the elections office. It was noted that an Aug. 5 deadline to file them had passed.

Davis and Lauve spearheaded the petition drive to get the measure on the November ballot after U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith denied a request in June for a court order to block the Detroit Downtown Development Authority from using taxpayer funds to relocate the Pistons.

In the lawsuit filed late Sunday, Davis and Lauve argue City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Elections Director Daniel Baxter violated their due process rights by “improperly” rejecting the “timely filed referendum petitions” in violation of Detroit’s City Charter.

“The unethical behavior of the Detroit City Clerk and her staff is truly disheartening,” Davis told The News on Monday. “Considering that the Detroit City Charter is very clear.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a judgment from the court as well as court costs, attorney fees and other unspecified damages for the alleged violation of their constitutional rights. They are also asking the court to compel Winfrey to canvass the referendum petitions that they contend were filed properly to determine whether they have obtained the sufficient number of valid signatures.

The plaintiffs want the ordinance approved by Detroit’s City Council in June to be suspended until Winfrey makes a final report on the petitions, according to the lawsuit. The ordinance went into effect July 5.

On Monday afternoon, Davis and Lauve filed an emergency motion to ask the court to convene a hearing within a day or two.

Originally, the two had submitted around 300 signatures on Aug. 4. The next day, Lauve received a letter saying without the full 4,054 required, the submission should not have been accepted.

But under Detroit’s city charter, petitioners are given another 15 days to submit after their initial submission, Davis argues.

When Davis and Lauve arrived at the elections office on Friday to turn in the remaining signatures, city workers initially said they could not file and had to submit the petition as a whole unless ordered by a judge. Then, the petition signatures were accepted under order of Winfrey. Within 30 minutes, the latest letter rejecting the petition was sent out.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell on Monday called the claim “frivolous” and said he expects the court will throw it out.

“Robert Davis’ latest lawsuit is yet another frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars. He missed the deadline by nearly two weeks and wants taxpayers to pay for his mistake,” Hollowell said in a provided statement. “We expect the court will dismiss this case in short order.”

Hollowell added Winfrey “properly rejected these late petitions.”

“The City also plans to seek sanctions, costs and attorneys fees against Mr. Davis,” he said.