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January 17, 2020

Courts uphold Measure A ballot wording

Question on two new hotels to be decided in March election

A California appellate court affirmed on New Year’s Eve that the language of Morgan Hill Measure A will appear as proposed by the city, rejecting a bid by hotel owners to change the wording.

The measure on the March 3 election ballot will read: “Shall the ordinance No. 2295, amending a Planned Development Master Plan for ‘Madrone Village Shopping Center’ located on the northwest corner of Madrone Parkway and Cochrane Road (APN’s 726-33-029,030, and 031), to add hotels as an approved use, which is consistent with the City’s General Plan and Economic Blueprint to encourage tourism, and that generates new city revenues for city services including public safety, street repairs and other infrastructure be adopted?”

The wording of the measure was challenged by the Morgan Hill Hotel Coalition, whose attorneys filed a lawsuit alleging that the language unfairly argues in favor of the proposal for two new hotels in north Morgan Hill by touting potential, yet unproven, economic benefits.

City officials, represented by City Attorney Don Larkin, argued the Measure A ballot language merely provides factual information to voters.

The city council initially approved the developer’s proposal to build two new hotels—a Marriott and a Hilton—as a zoning amendment in January 2019. In February, representatives of the hotel coalition began circulating a petition to challenge the council’s decision.

The hotel coalition gathered enough signatures to place the question on the March 2020 ballot. In May 2019, the city council agreed to place the question on the ballot and approved the language of the measure to be submitted to the county’s registrar of voters.

The recent litigation began in October, when the hotel coalition filed a petition in Superior Court opposing the city’s ballot wording. In December, the court affirmed the city’s ballot measure.

The hotel coalition, represented by attorney Asit Panwala, attempted to appeal that decision to the Sixth District Court of Appeals. The appeals court denied the hotel coalition’s “petition for writ of mandate” on a 2-1 vote, bringing the proceedings to a close in the city’s favor.

“The city council’s role in adopting ballot language is to present the chief purposes and points of the measure in clear and understandable terms,” Larkin said in an email to the Times. “We believe that the city council’s language is accurate and clear, and are pleased that the court chose to deny the challenge.”

Panwala disagrees with the court’s decision. His filings on behalf of the hotel coalition claim that the city’s Measure A ballot language is argumentative and opinionated. Such statements, Panwala said, should be contained in the “arguments” section of the ballot and not in the measure question itself.

“The proposed ballot question violates the Elections Code in that it goes beyond describing the nature thereof or purpose of the ordinance,” Panwala wrote in his Dec. 23 writ submitted to the appeals court. “Instead, it is partisan, and engenders bias in favor of its approval. It sends a powerful cue to voters to approve the ordinance.”

Panwala told this newspaper after the Sixth District Court denied his appeal request Dec. 31 that the “ballot question will remain the same, even though I contend it is biased in favor of the ordinance and makes a promise to generate new city revenue with no evidence to support that position.”

City officials and council members initially approved the zoning amendment allowing two new hotels last year based largely on the promise of increased transient occupancy tax revenues. This tax is levied on guests who stay at hotels within the city limits, and is used to finance general fund expenditures such as public safety, street repairs and other local services.

Before submitting the petition for referendum, Panwala and hotel owners in Morgan Hill argued against the zoning amendment. They argued there is no proof that the new hotels would generate more overall revenue for the city, as they could end up simply siphoning business from existing hotels.

Panwala added that the litigation was initiated by his father, San Panwala, who is an owner of the Comfort Inn in Morgan Hill. The Panwalas think the vacant land at Madrone Village should be used for a different commercial purpose—specifically a grocery store—instead of more hotels. Asit Panwala noted there are already two other new hotels in development in Morgan Hill: the Granada Hotel downtown and a 120-room facility on Cochrane Road. 

“(There) is no evidence to support that any revenue would be new or that Morgan Hill can support four new hotels,” Panwala said. 

Measure A requires a simple majority vote to pass. If approved, developer Toeniskoetter Development would be able to move forward with its proposal to build the Marriott and Hilton hotels in the Madrone Village Business Park. The hotels are proposed on a vacant, 4.4-acre property at Madrone Parkway and Woodview Avenue.

Larkin further explained the city’s position on the Measure A ballot wording: “In writing the ballot question for a referendum, the city council is required to describe both the nature and purpose of the measure being submitted to the voters. In this case, the nature of the measure is to allow hotel development in the Madrone Village development. The purpose of the change is to implement the city’s general plan and the Economic Blueprint, which will help generate revenues to fund City services.”

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