Editorial: In arena battle, disclosure will be vital on all sides

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

If you're going to smack the other side for hiding the ball, you better make sure you're being completely open to the public. Voters can spot hypocrisy a mile away.

In Sacramento politics these days, Exhibit A is the campaign over the proposed downtown arena.

After blasting city leaders for supposedly concealing the true size of the arena's public subsidy, those pushing a citywide vote lost credibility when a mystery donor paid for much of the petition drive. The $100,000 contributor turned out to be Chris Hansen, the billionaire who tried to buy the Kings and move them to Seattle.

Those opposing the ballot measure flogged proponents for the secrecy and made hay from the Hansen debacle. Now, they have to fully open their books, too.

Registered under the name of DowntownArena.org, the anti-ballot measure group is sponsored by Region Builders, a trade association of contractors, developers and other construction interests becoming more active in area politics. Region Builders was formed as a 501(c)(6) under the federal tax code. That allows it to accept money without publicly identifying donors, while taking on some political activities.

Joshua Wood, Region Builders' executive director, says the group will avoid capitalizing on that "legal wiggle room" to get involved in politics without disclosing its funding.

"We would never do that," Wood promised The Sacramento Bee's editorial board.

Maybe not, but there's no denying that Region Builders used its muscle earlier this year in an attempt to muzzle the staff of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. It amped up that campaign after SACOG Executive Director Mike McKeever spoke out against a leapfrog development, Cordova Hills, at a Board of Supervisors meeting. That raised questions about whether Region Builders was serving as a conduit for Cordova Hills and consultants it had hired.

It is hard to know.

Region Builders doesn't disclose its lobbying contributions or expenses, and doesn't have to under its 501(c)(6) status. Wood says they come almost entirely from membership dues and basically pay his salary as the only full-time employee. In the past, he's denied getting support from Cordova Hills.

In pursuing its campaign activities, Region Builders created a political action committee. The PAC is registered with the state and files reports showing its contributors, its spending and the candidates and campaigns it supports.

So far, the Region Builders PAC is the biggest funder of DowntownArena.org, through a $5,000 loan. Of the remaining $10,700 donated to the ballot committee as of Wednesday, another $5,000 came from Regional Builders member organizations or board members, according to a list provided by Wood.

In the first half of 2013 overall, the Region Builders PAC reported $8,165 in contributions and $15,030 in spending, including a $1,500 contribution to Sacramento City Council member Darrell Fong. For all of 2012, it raised about $80,600 and spent about $171,000, including $5,000 given to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's re-election campaign. The PAC also gave to candidates in Sacramento, Elk Grove, Lincoln, Rancho Cordova, Rocklin and Roseville.

So far in the arena campaign, Region Builders has filed all the required reports and is going beyond what the law mandates in listing its benefactors. But there's a long way to go – especially if the measure qualifies for the June 2014 ballot. There's no avoiding that big money is a big part of our democracy. That makes it essential that voters know where the cash is coming from.

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