With Sacramento's arena negotiations entering a pivotal stretch, the City Council came within one vote Tuesday night of derailing the project before knowing what the plan would look like.
By a 5-4 margin, the council rejected a request by Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy to ask voters in June if they approve of a nascent plan to lease the city's parking to a private operator. Mayor Kevin Johnson and other arena supporters are counting on such a parking lease to raise about half the money needed for the $387 million arena.
The unexpectedly close vote left many of those involved wondering whether there would be support on the council for a parking lease, or whether it would become a politically radioactive issue for a council entering an election season.
A June vote on Sheedy's ballot measure would have come after a March 1 deadline imposed by the NBA for Sacramento to devise a plan for a new arena, or risk losing the Kings. Arena supporters said it also would have shown the league there is limited support for the project at City Hall.
"It would have, I think, sent a very negative message to the NBA and the people who have been working with us trying to make this happen," Councilman Rob Fong said Wednesday. "It would have been a vote of no confidence."
While Tuesday's vote was close, there are even tougher decisions ahead for the council.
City officials say they're hoping to generate as much as $200 million for the arena through the parking lease agreement. Before they get to that step, however, city staff members will request approval from the City Council next week to dive into deeper discussions with the most qualified firms attempting to lease parking operations.
The council will then be asked to issue a request for proposals to generate formal bids for the parking assets. That process is expected to cost the city $1 million or more.
City parking would be the largest single piece of an arena financing package that is also expected to include contributions from the Kings and an arena operator.
With the city facing a $24.5 million deficit over the next two years, Sheedy, a vocal opponent of both Johnson and his arena plan, said she thinks the public should weigh in on committing such "a massive" public resource as parking toward the arena.
"The current effort that we have is to build an arena in Sacramento with the idea of avoiding any public vote on the matter," Sheedy said.
Until Tuesday, only Councilman Darrell Fong had backed Sheedy's ballot proposal. Council members Kevin McCarty and Bonnie Pannell added their support Tuesday night.
During the council meeting, McCarty said the question of whether to lease out city parking is "really tricky," and wondered aloud if it "warrants a check-in with the voters." Pannell said she is "not going to use public dollars" on an arena.
Johnson was silent as the tense ballot measure debate unfolded, and he was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Moments before Sheedy's motion came up, the council had rejected Johnson's request to place his most recent strong-mayor proposal on the ballot the latest in a string of defeats for the mayor's signature initiative.
All four council members who voted in favor of Sheedy's ballot measure also voted against Johnson's strong-mayor plan. And as Pannell and McCarty seek re-election in June, they are facing candidates aligned with the mayor.
Political consultant Chris Lehane, who leads the mayor's Think Big arena task force, said the stakes of future council votes "could not be higher."
"The ball is in Sacramento's court," he said. "And the more unified Sacramento is, the stronger the city's position will be in its discussions with the NBA when it comes to getting a deal done that represents the best interest of the public."
At this point, it's unclear what message if any Tuesday's vote sent to the NBA. A league spokesman would not comment on the vote, or even say whether league officials had monitored the council discussion.
Firms that have expressed interest in leasing city parking operations have been monitoring the political landscape at City Hall and said they were undeterred by the close council vote.
"There wasn't any proposal they were voting on," said Roger Salazar, a political consultant and spokesman for a group called Sacramento Forward LLC. "They haven't seen the offers."
But, he added, "Clearly we are going to have to tailor the program to meet the city's needs, otherwise it is not going to work for anybody. The vote does show (council support for the parking plan) is close."
Aaron Zeff, whose Priority Parking of San Francisco is partnering with local developer Larry Kelley on a proposal, said the five council members who voted against Sheedy's plan "definitely appear to be committed to it."
"There's still time to educate the other electeds," he said. "The process is political. We understand that."