A citizen organization that oppose the proposed downtown Washington convention center filed suit in D.C. Superior Court yesterday, seeking to force a citywide public vote on the $100-million project.
If the Convention Center Referendum Committee wins its suit, it would lead to the first election using a referendum power approved by district of Columbia voters in November 1977 and later ratified by Congress.
Lawyers for the committee asked the court to order the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics to accept petitions signed by more than 12,500 citizens seeking the referendum. The board refused the petitions Dec. 15, saying the D.C. City Council had not passed legislation needed to govern the conduct of any referendum.
That position, the committee said, "deprives . . . the citizens of the District of Columbia of their rights" and is legally in error. Since the council did not meet a deadline of Oct. 1 for having a detailed referendum law on the books, the right to such an election became effective automatically, the committee asserted.
William B. Schultz, attorney for the committee, said he would ask for speedy deliberations so the issue can get onto the ballot of a special citywide election May 1.
On that date, voters will fill City Council seats being vacated next Tuesday by Mayor-elect Marion Barry (D-At Large) and Council Chairman elect Arrington Dixon (D-Ward 4).
The complaint filed in Superior Court did not detail any of the issues in the dispute over the convention center itself, proposed for the Mount Veron Square area north of downtown.
The project, approved by Congress (although reluctantly by the Senate), is backed by a board coalition of business, labor and governmental leaders who view it as a boon for the city's economy.
The center's principal opposition is the loosely knit but aggressive citizens committee that filed the lawsuit, which sees the project as a probable drain on the city's resources.
Attempts by the committee to force a referendum began began last summer, even before the failure of the council to act on legislation that was then pending.
Leaders of D.C. homosexual organizations voiced the fear that Washington voters might follow the lead of Miami and several other cities and use the referendum procedure to curtail or repeal various antidiscfmfnation laws here.
Unable to agree on language to deal with this issue, the council tabled the entire measure and never revived it.
Among other things, the council's proposed measure would have spelled out the circumstances under which legislation-including the budgets for projects such as the convention center-would be vulnerable to attack by referendum. It also would have set up spending limits for compaigns for and against ballot proposals.
Schultz, the citizens committee attorney, said the group wants the public to vote on whether any further tax revenues or other public funds should be spent to plan, buy land for or build the convention center, or operate the facility. buy land for or build the convention center, or operate the facility.