Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

STOP attorney Brad Hertz, right, speaks as assistant city attorney Matt Ruyak listens during a hearing last week on the arena ballot measure petitions.

Editorial: Judge’s ruling slapping down arena ballot measure could not be clearer

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 - 12:00 am

Sacramento’s planned downtown arena is looking much more likely after a major legal challenge was swept aside – and for very good reasons.

Two taxpayer groups that oppose the city’s subsidy of at least $258 million toward the $448 million arena had collected more than 22,000 signatures to force a ballot measure on such subsidies.

But the groups violated both state election law and the city charter, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ruled Wednesday.

His decision could not be much clearer.

The judge agreed with the city that the measure, itself, was invalid because it illegally sought to restrict the City Council’s control over the city’s finances. “Because the Charter grants the City Council such fiscal authority, the electorate, by ordinance, cannot take it away,” Frawley wrote.

The measure would have required a public vote on any city subsidy for a professional sports facility that affects the general fund. If it had passed, then there would have been a second citywide vote on the actual arena subsidy, presumably in November.

The judge also sided with City Clerk Shirley Concolino, who disqualified the petitions because they lacked an enacting clause to make clear that the initiative would take effect if approved and because the group’s leaders also failed to put their names on the required published legal notice.

Even if the initiative were valid, Frawley said, the petitions were “infected with errors” of such “volume and magnitude” that they “undermined the integrity of the electoral process.”

“The law should not demand perfection,” he added, “but neither should it condone carelessness or indifference.”

Faced with such a definitive ruling, both taxpayer groups, Voters for a Fair Arena Deal and Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, announced Thursday that they won’t appeal. Frawley’s decision appeared unlikely to be overturned – especially before Tuesday’s council meeting, the last at which the council could meet deadlines for the June ballot.

Unable to win on the legal merits, STOP’s leaders are continuing to bash City Hall. They’re being overwrought, however, to claim that voters have been silenced, or that city leaders are making a “mockery of democracy.”

They need to take a deep breath and remember that council members are duly-elected representatives, who debated the arena deal at length and in the open and who made a considered decision. You can disagree with it, but it’s hardly anti-democratic. Going forward, nothing is stopping the group’s leaders from speaking at council meetings to make their points.

STOP is correct that the arena deal deserves more scrutiny. It has raised some important issues. What is the true value of land and other assets the city is putting into the deal? What is the timetable for the retail and residential development surrounding the arena that is planned by the Kings’ new owners and that is crucial to the city’s return on investment?

Even without a public vote, it’s clear that many in Sacramento oppose the arena deal. Before giving their final approval in April to the financing and development agreements, council members would be wise to address those questions to shore up public support, as well as protect taxpayers.

In their failed initiative effort, the taxpayer groups only have themselves to blame. They only had to follow some simple rules in drafting the petitions. They could have pushed a straightforward measure on the arena subsidy, instead of the broader one that conflicted with the city charter.

If some Sacramentans are angry that they apparently won’t get to vote directly on the arena subsidy, their ire should be aimed mostly at the taxpayer groups, not City Hall.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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