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Soccer complex battle puts residents on defense

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 9 2011 6:41 p.m. MST

Counselor Karthik Nadesan, representing the Jordan River Restoration Network, argues against the intentions of Salt Lake City attorneys appearing before Judge Robert Hilder at the Matheson Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011.

, Francisco Kjolseth

SALT LAKE CITY — Lucy Knorr is a paralegal who'd never spoken in court before.

Ray Wheeler said his legal experience consisted of a lone visit to small-claims court.

Yet Knorr, Wheeler and a handful of others chose to represent themselves Wednesday in an unorthodox lawsuit in which Salt Lake City sued all of its residents, taxpayers and property owners.

Seeking to put a stop to legal challenges related to a $15.3 million bond issue approved by voters in 2003, city attorneys last month filed a petition asking a judge to validate the bond.

In doing so, the city essentially sued all of its residents — including Judge Kate Toomey, who had been scheduled to preside over a hearing Wednesday in 3rd District Court.

Instead, Judge Robert Hilder made the trek from Summit County to hear the unusual case.

"This has been a very interesting issue," Hilder said following the roughly six-hour hearing. "I hadn't planned on spending the day this way, but it's been fascinating."

The judge has 10 business days to issue a decision.

Wheeler and Knorr took turns cross-examining witnesses — including Mayor Ralph Becker — during the hearing, and both were allowed to make closing statements to the judge summarizing their positions.

"This is one of the most exceptional proceedings I think most lawyers will ever see, where a city sues every single one of its taxpayers and property owners, and all of them are allowed to defend themselves," said Karthik Nadesan, an attorney representing a group of Salt Lake City residents.

While calling the hearing "unconventional," Nadesan said he believes it was the best way for everyone's interests to be represented.

"I think Mayor Becker should be cross-examined by his constituents on a regular basis," he said. "I think that would result in better government for all."

Prior to Wednesday, the Utah Bond Validation Act had been used only once since it was passed by the state Legislature in 1987. The act allows a public body to file a petition to establish the validity of bonds.

"If there are challenges to us issuing this bond, we want to get those addressed quickly by the courts," Becker said during a break in the proceedings. "The Legislature established a process to do that, and so the city is pursuing that remedy."

Legal challenges by an environmental group thus far have prevented the Salt Lake City Council from authorizing the sale of bonds to construct the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex near 1900 West and 2200 North.

The Jordan River Restoration Network has four active lawsuits against the city and another against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all related to the location of the sports complex.

The group objects to the decision to build the soccer complex near the Jordan River and in a flood plain. It also has taken issue with the difference between the project approved by voters in 2003 and what the city now intends to build.

In the lawsuit against Salt Lake City residents and taxpayers, city attorneys contend the way the city plans to use the bond is consistent with language on the ballot.

"The purpose was to build a regional sports recreation and education complex," Evelyn Furse, a senior attorney for Salt Lake City, told Judge Hilder. "That's what the city intends to do, and it has followed all procedures to do that."

City attorneys also request that legal challenges to the bond election held Nov. 4, 2003, not be valid unless they were filed during the contest period, which ended Dec. 23, 2003.

A city recorder's report shows that no legal complaints regarding the bond election were filed during that time frame.

Nadesan, who represents the Jordan River Restoration Network, said he believes the city's use of the Utah Bond Validation Act put his clients at a disadvantage because it allowed for an expedited hearing. That prevented his legal team from conducting discovery and depositions, as well as requesting and receiving documents from the city, he said.

At the start of Wednesday's hearing, Nadesan argued that Salt Lake City residents and property owners didn't receive proper notice from the city that they were defendants in the lawsuit. Judge Hilder determined that enough notice was given, and the hearing was allowed to proceed.

No matter what ruling Hilder hands down, Nadesan said he expects the issue ultimately will be decided by the Utah Supreme Court.

"The Utah Supreme Court is going to have to weigh in and decide whether the procedure today was appropriate and whether proper notice and procedure was followed," he said.

City leaders held a groundbreaking ceremony in early November for the $22.8 million first phase of the Salt Lake Regional Athletic Complex.

City officials plan to use the $15.3 million bond and a $7.5 million gift from Real Salt Lake to fund construction of 15 competition-quality soccer fields and one championship field with permanent bleachers and lights. 

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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