June 24, 2008 in City

Raceway hearing back on

Staff writer

What’s next?

County commissioners at 2 p.m. today discuss hiring an interim track operator. Superior Court Judge Robert Austin is scheduled to rule on finalizing the sale at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Previous coverage:

June 21: Committee chooses Stateline Speedway

June 20: Raceway sale postponed indefinitely

June 20: Bidders names ordered released | List of bidders (PDF)

June 18: Four vie to operate raceway

June 11: Potential operator disputes county’s racetrack estimates

June 5: Spurned bidder offers to buy racetrack

June 4: County to choose raceway operator

May 16: Raceway could reopen this summer

May 15: Raceway tour may have broken meetings laws

April 26: Names of raceway park bidders remain secret

April 12: Track purchase raises concerns about tax measures | Raceway bidder upset at county

April 11:County top bidder on 300 acres at raceway auction

April 10:Tests find chemical in Raceway well

Spokane County may own the former Spokane Raceway Park site as early as Thursday.

That possibility looms because Superior Court Judge Robert Austin has reversed his decision to appoint a special master to examine the recommended sale. The appointment of a special master likely would have delayed finalization of the sale a month or more.

The judge scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. Thursday to finalize the sale of four parcels, comprising 314 acres, to Spokane County and nine other parcels to four businesses and individuals who submitted the highest bids at an April auction.

In an order dated Friday and filed Monday, the judge said the “delay necessary for a special master to be sufficiently apprised of the case is not in the best interests of the estate.” Austin said there was nothing improper about his attendance at the auction – the argument that gave rise to his decision to call for outside help.

Now, upon reflection, the judge said in a two-page order that the motion for him to step aside “was designed to annoy, harass and delay the proceedings.”

“The appointment of a special master would further add to the delay and increase expenses to the estate,” the judge said.

The estate is the asset of Washington Motorsports, a limited partnership that sold shares to build the drag strip, oval track and road course at Spokane Raceway Park in the 1970s.

A group of the limited partners, contending they have seen no return on their investments, filed suit in 2003 and convinced Austin to appoint a receiver after showing track operator Orville Moe had engaged in fraud and self-dealing.

The primary asset of Washington Motorsports – almost a square mile section of land – was sold at the April 10 auction, generating $8.2 million.

Last Thursday, the judge said he would step aside from determining whether to approve the auction results, as recommended by a court-appointed receiver, after Seattle attorney Jerome Shulkin challenged the propriety of Austin attending the public auction.

Reached at his Seattle law firm Monday, Shulkin was caught off-guard by the judge’s reversal.

“Wow!” he said. “I haven’t seen it yet.”

Shulkin wouldn’t say what his next legal move might be, but he said he may seek a stay to block this week’s hearing, where the sales could be approved and ownership transferred.

“I’m very disturbed that he would reverse himself,” Shulkin said. “I thought the judge was trying to do the fair thing by bringing someone else in as special master and realizing he had over-stepped his judicial position by attending the auction.”

Spokane attorney John Giesa said he was pleased with the reversal. Giesa represents court-appointed receiver Barry Davidson who controls the assets of Washington Motorsports, including Spokane Raceway Park.

“It moves the case forward without the expense and delay of having a master determine whether or not to approve the sale of the Raceway Park parcels,” Giesa said.

In his latest ruling, the judge reiterated his belief that he didn’t violate judicial canons of ethics or appearance of fairness standards by attending the auction.

“There was no appearance of fairness violation by my attending the auction,” Austin said in his reversal order. The judge said there have been “no disputes concerning the conduct and administration of the auction or that my presence somehow favored any bidder or litigant in this case.”

“As the Superior Court judge who ordered the auction, I feel it was within my discretion to observe the procedure of the auction,” Austin said.

If the sale to Spokane County is approved by the court on Thursday, it would probably take two business days to formally close the transaction and officially put the county’s name on the deed – a step needed for insurance to cover volunteers involved in a planned cleanup at the site.

A cleanup had been scheduled for Saturday but was postponed indefinitely Thursday when the judge said he was going to appoint the special master.

The following week is the July 4 weekend, and county officials are unsure if they could get sufficient volunteers for the cleanup.

“As soon as it’s ours, one of the first things that will be addressed is the volunteer cleanup day,” Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, the county’s public information officer, said Monday.

The county commissioners, meeting today at 2 p.m., are scheduled to discuss hiring an interim operator to run the track through the remainder of this season and next year. A selection committee recommends Stateline Speedway for the job, but there are indications that at least one of the commissioners favors hiring the selection committee’s No. 2 choice, Pacific Raceways, of Kent, Wash.

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