Sale of stadium in limbo: Lawsuit challenges deal between city and Board of Ed.
UNION CITY - A Union City restaurant owner is seeking to halt the city's proposed $3.32 million sale of Roosevelt Stadium by filing a lawsuit. The sale of the stadium to the Board of Education will go to a public hearing and final vote before the Board of Commissioners April 25. Jose Franco, the owner of La Corona de Espana Restaurant at 3901 Bergenline Ave., along with his attorney, Louis Rosen, is trying to establish a court order to have the sale deemed a violation of state law and voided. In a filed complaint to Superior Court of New Jersey, Franco said the sale failed to gain approval from the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) and state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under Green Acres provisions. Green Acres is a funding mechanism for parklands that has allocated $158,000 to Union City for construction of a field house at Roosevelt Stadium. The suit is against Mayor Rudy Garcia, the city of Union City, the Union City Board of Education, the DOE, the DEP, the State Department of Community Affairs and Commissioner Tina Yandolino, who are all related to the sale of the stadium, said Franco. The Board of Ed. has already approved the stadium's sale, and the board of commissioners recently issued the $3.5 million in bonds needed for the sale but did not seek approval beforehand from the DOE and DEP. The successful sale of the stadium is one of two measures needed to complete the city's six months overdue fiscal year budget. The other sale is the city's Department of Public Works garage, which is to be sold to a private developer. The suit alleges that Yandolino has a conflict of interest because she is a paid employee of the Board of Education and serves on the Board of Commissioners. For this reason, Yandolino should not have been allowed to vote in favor of the sale, said Franco. Garcia has said all along that no prior approvals were needed for the sale of the stadium because the transfer in ownership is from one municipality to another government entity. However, both the DOE and DEP have advised against the sale, saying the transfer could be illegal. Franco said the two agencies were named in the lawsuit because they failed to take action or intervene in halting the stadium's sale. Regarding Franco's decision to file a lawsuit, Garcia said, "He is the same person that sued me in the past because he wanted to keep his bar open to all hours of the night and I would not allow him to." Garcia also said Franco's attorney, who is a former school board attorney, is politically-motivated. Garcia described the lawsuit as a "baseless and frivolous" attempt to "waste tax payers money that has been orchestrated by Commissioner [Rafael] Fraguela." Commissioner Fraguela voted against the sale. His proposal to bring in the state to review the city's budget was rejected by the Board of Commissioners and Garcia, who holds a seat on the board. Franco said he and his attorney have no hidden political agendas and that he is simply a concerned citizen looking to act in his community's best interest. Franco maintained that his past lawsuit against the mayor has nothing to do with his current one and that he had been thinking about filing a lawsuit for some time now but was hoping the mayor would have heeded advice from those opposing the sale. "Those $3 million can be used on the school system," Franco said. "If our kids are still using the stadium and there are still 14-years remaining on the lease, why sell it? My thinking is that he has to make up for his shortfall, for the budget deficit. He wants to fill that gap by selling the stadium. But it's very clear that he cannot use Green Acres money to fill a budget gap. It's illegal." The city leased the stadium to the Board of Ed. in 1994 for a 20-year period at a cost of $1.5 million. According to the suit, the agreement between the city and the Board of Ed. never contained an option to purchase the stadium by the Board of Ed. But the mayor and Board of Commissioners recently authorized an amendment that allows for such an option. The suit also alleges that since the city already owns Roosevelt Stadium, it would be illegal to issue bonds to assist the Board of Ed. with its purchase. Proceeds from the sale of the stadium would be used in the city's fiscal budget. "Roosevelt Stadium is owned by the City of Union City," said Garcia, claiming that he is working in the best interest of the city's children. Garcia pointed to a similar situation involving the sale of a Jersey City field to a private developer. "That is now Society Hill and all the facilities were taken away from children," Garcia said. "The only way we can make sure the stadium will always be there is to make sure that the Board of Ed. takes it over. Not one dollar is being taken out of the Board of Ed.'s budget, but rather, a bond is going to be issued to pay the city. We're an Abbott district. Because this is an educational purpose, we will be paid back almost dollar for dollar. The state will pay for it. This is a good deal. Only those who have political reasons are opposing [it]." The Board of Commissioners is expected to vote for approval of the sale on April 25 at a public hearing, which is the same day Franco is scheduled for his day in court.