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  • Renee C. Byer / Sacramento Bee

    Julian Camacho, right, president of STOP, Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork and Voters, helps deliver 12 boxes of petitions demanding a public vote on the arena subsidy to Sacramento City Hall in December. On Friday, elections officials said enough valid signatures were submitted to qualify the issue for the June general election ballot.

  • Richard Drew Associated Press

    Adam Silver, who replaces David Stern as commissioner Feb. 1, will attend a Kings home game Feb. 5 against Toronto, a source with knowledge of his visit said today.

Arena subsidy opponents gather enough signatures to force a public vote, elections office says

Published: Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 - 9:41 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 - 9:03 am

The arena signatures have been counted. Now get ready for the lawsuit.

The citizens’ group fighting the $258 million city subsidy for the new Sacramento Kings arena cleared a major hurdle Friday by surpassing the minimum number of signatures needed to put the issue on the June ballot. After weeks of checking and cross-checking, the Sacramento County registrar of voters said Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork had obtained 22,498 valid signatures as of Friday’s count, surpassing the 22,026 needed.

But it was all but certain that the issue will go to court before it reaches the voters, if ever. Mayor Kevin Johnson, the Kings and their political allies stepped up their demand that Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino reject at least some of the signatures because of “glaring errors” in the wording of STOP’s petitions and other alleged violations of the elections law.

“Given the legal stench wafting off these petitions, we believe it is critical for the city to protect the public by making sure that the flawed petitions are rejected,” said a statement issued by The4000, a political action committee founded by Johnson and led in part by Kings President Chris Granger. In addition, Granger and the mayor issued separate statements in support of the arena project.

Even as it celebrated its achievement, STOP acknowledged that it hasn’t yet qualified the subsidy issue for the ballot. Its lawyer Brad Hertz said whatever problems exist with the petitions, they’re minor, but he said the organization was ready for a legal fight.

“We hit the mark and we are very gratified,” said STOP co-founder James Cathcart, who led the months-long petition drive. “The city clerk still has to validate. We will see what happens there. ...We have to be prepared for some legal issues.” STOP argues that the subsidy, tentatively approved by the City Council last March, is too costly.

Concolino suggested she will closely scrutinize the petitions for any defects. “The city clerk has the responsibility and sole authority to accept or reject petitions per the (California) election code and the Sacramento city charter,” she said in an emailed statement. “Regardless of how many signatures are deemed valid, the final certification of the election lies with the city’s elections official, the city clerk.”

The county still has 715 signatures left to check before all the petitions are turned over to Concolino, probably next week. She has until Jan. 28 to decide whether the petitions pass muster. Then come the legal fireworks.

If the clerk rejects some petitions, and STOP falls back below the 22,026 threshold, the taxpayers’ organization will surely sue. If she doesn’t reject any petitions and certifies the question for the June ballot, she will likely be sued by arena proponents – although it wasn’t clear if litigation would come from the Kings, the mayor or some other entity.

Either way, a date in court is practically a foregone conclusion, said Thomas Hiltachk, a Sacramento lawyer and expert on the initiative process. Given the complexities involved, “that’s really where it should go,” he said.

Hiltachk, who has examined The4000’s written demands to the city clerk, said STOP’s petition campaign appears legally flawed in several ways. Among other things, he said, the official notice published in June in the Sacramento Observer newspaper – a requirement before petitions can be circulated – left off the names of the backers of the initiative.

He said courts tend to frown on ballot initiatives that don’t disclose who’s behind the petitions.

“They’re arcane requirements, but they all have an important component,” he said. “There’s some wiggle room, but your failure to comply ... cannot undermine the objective of the law.”

Hertz, however, said that despite some flaws with the petitions, STOP had achieved “substantial compliance” with the election laws. The organization was ready to defend the petitions in court, the STOP lawyer said.

“The voters have spoken,” Hertz said. “The courts generally give great deference to that.”

Johnson released a statement questioning the “integrity of these ballot petitions” and said the city would “consider all of the available options to protect the public.”

The mayor and his allies continued to hammer away at STOP’s signature-gathering methods. They noted that Chris Hansen, the hedge fund manager who tried to lure the Kings to Seattle earlier this year, secretly donated $100,000 to the petition drive by funneling it through a Southern California political operative. Hansen was fined $50,000 for violating California disclosure laws, and STOP’s founders have said they didn’t know Hansen was the source of funds.

Meanwhile, Adam Silver, the incoming NBA commissioner, plans to attend a Kings home game Feb. 5 against Toronto, a source with knowledge of his visit said Friday. The source insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss Silver’s plans.

It’s expected that Silver, who takes over as commissioner Feb. 1, will meet with team and city officials about the proposed $448 million arena at Downtown Plaza.

Building the new arena is considered crucial to cementing the Kings’ long-term future in Sacramento. The NBA board of governors in May rejected a deal by the Kings’ former owners, the Maloofs, to sell the team to the Seattle group led by Hansen. But the league gave the new owners, led by Vivek Ranadive, until 2017 to complete the new arena or face the possible loss of the team. The current timetable calls for the arena to open in 2016.

Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.

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