It's official: The fate of the Neiman Marcus project in Walnut Creek is completely in the hands of the voters.
The Walnut Creek City Council voted Tuesday to repeal its May approvals of the Broadway Plaza expansion project, which inspired two referendums. The expansion was intended to make way for a downtown Neiman Marcus store.
The council's action means there will be no Neiman Marcus project unless voters approve Measure I on Nov. 3.
The council had little choice after a judge on Sept. 1 ordered the council to either place the referendums on the same ballot as Measure I or repeal their approvals. The referendums were based on the council's approval in May of the Neiman Marcus project. Opponents of the expansion disagreed and petitioned voters to get two referendums on the ballot to overturn the council's decision.
Around the same time, supporters of the Neiman project circulated a petition to get an initiative — different from a referendum — on the ballot that would establish a store like Neiman Marcus downtown. At its Aug. 4 meeting, the council decided to put the initiative, now called Measure I, on the ballot and not take any action on the referendums.
That outraged project opponents, who filed suit. Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge David Flinn ruled Sept. 1 that when the council ignored the referendums, Measure I supporters were given an unfair advantage.
At Tuesday night's meeting, council members said that despite the judge's ruling, they do not think they did anything wrong.
"At the time on Aug. 4 when we made that decision, I believe it was the right decision, and I still believe it was the right decision," Councilwoman Cindy Silva said. "There are lots of ways to interpret election law."
Nonetheless, the council repealed its approvals, in effect erasing the referendums, leaving voters to decide on Neiman.
Silva asked City Attorney Paul Valle-Riestra whether the judge's descriptions of the council's actions as "arbitrary" and "capricious" are terms of law or his subjective words. Valle-Riestra said those are standard legal terms, but that the judge thought the council's actions were politically motivated.
Many at Tuesday's meeting spoke in support of having only Measure I on the ballot because, unlike the referendums, it would give people a chance to vote on the whole project.
Resident Ken Hambrick said he doesn't care whether Neiman Marcus comes to Walnut Creek, but he does care that "Walnut Creek follows the democratic process." He went on to say the entire council should resign.
Councilman Kish Rajan said accusations that the council trampled on democracy are wrong.
"There are no issues in those referenda that are not covered in Measure I," Rajan said. "I don't think we are trying deny people their rights. I think it's quite the contrary. They have the opportunity to vote no, if they don't appreciate the project or don't like it."
Reach Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617.