What began as a small group of neighborhood activists scraping for donations at a picnic in a midtown Sacramento garden has developed into a volatile political clash over whether to hold a public vote on the city's plan to subsidize a new Kings arena downtown.
The debate has escalated in recent days. There have been allegations that paid signature gatherers are lying to voters, charges of doctored press releases and outrage on Twitter about claims made by both sides.
In an indication of how intense the campaign has become, more than 56,000 city voters received an automated "robocall" Sunday evening extolling the virtues of a downtown arena and attacking the campaign under way to place the city's financing plan before the voters in June.
Those kinds of robocalls are not unusual during campaign season. But a vote on the arena – if it comes at all – won't be held for another 10 months.
The robocalls aim to dissuade voters from signing petitions to place a measure on the June 2014 ballot requiring a public vote on the city's arena plan. Proponents need to obtain 22,000 valid voter signatures to qualify their measure, which would require a public vote on city subsidies for sports facilities.
The City Council has approved spending $258 million in public money, much of it future parking revenues, to help build the $448 million arena.
Andrew Acosta, a Sacramento political consultant who has operated many recent city campaigns but is not involved in the arena issue, said the spirited tone of the debate was to be expected.
The effort to keep the Sacramento Kings in town, and the corresponding quest to devise a financing plan for a new arena, dominated the city's attention this spring. And the question of whether the public should help foot the bill for an arena has been debated again and again in Sacramento for more than a decade.
"This all just shows that there are people who have strong opinions on both sides and it's all coming to the surface," he said.
None of the campaign tactics on display in recent days are new, Acosta noted. Twitter attacks are a big part of campaigns, and paid signature gatherers are used frequently around the state. Mayor Kevin Johnson, the city's chief arena booster, used paid workers to collect signatures in 2009 to place a strong-mayor initiative on the ballot.
"That's how the sausage gets made," Acosta said. "That's the ugly underbelly of politics in California."
The robocalls, though, appeared to catch some voters off guard. The automated message, narrated by a woman identified only as "Judy," accused the signature gatherers of lying to voters and claimed the arena would lead to 4,000 jobs and $100 million in new revenue for downtown.
"When you're doing robocalls in July, you know it's important," said Joshua Wood, who leads a building industry coalition called Region Builders, which is playing a prominent role in the pro-arena campaign, dubbed DowntownArena.org. The automated calls were funded by a coalition of Kings fans, building industry groups and labor unions, Wood said.
That group also released a video last week that it said showed a signature gatherer erroneously telling voters that the city was raising taxes to fund the arena. Over the weekend, the coalition tweeted a photo of a signature gatherer wearing a Kings shirt, arguing that the shirt sent a misleading message to voters who might think the campaign is in support of the arena project.
On the other side of the debate are two groups with much different backgrounds.
One of those groups gathering signatures – Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, or STOP – has been around since last year, relying on low-key fundraising events, donations from retirees and appearances at the weekly downtown farmers market to spread its message that the public deserves to weigh in on the arena subsidy. As of June 30, the group had raised just $2,399 in donations this year, according to documents filed Monday with the city clerk's office.
STOP has enlisted the help of Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods, an Orange County-based political action committee that has raised thousands for other causes but until now had steered clear of Sacramento politics.
Campaign spokesman Jonathan Wilcox said the pro-vote campaign is in a "strong, commanding position" in its effort to gather signatures and that he is "really certain we'll be successful." Some members of the group who oppose an arena vote have said privately that they expect the signature gathering effort will collect enough signatures.
The signature campaign has made its own allegations.
A political consultant hired by the group last week publicized a draft of a press release written by the pro-arena side that quoted a "CITIZEN TO BE NAMED." The consultant, Tab Berg, said the wording showed that the pro-arena camp had made up the quote before attaching it to an actual person, and said it was an indication of a lack of true public support for an arena subsidy.
Wilcox said arena backers underestimated the public's appetite to vote on the arena subsidy.
"If the other side believed that Sacramentans would have no desire to hear more or weigh in, they were mistaken," Wilcox said. "I don't think they've listened very carefully." Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.
HEAR THE CALL
Listen to the telephone recording produced by DowntownArena.org at sacbee.com/citybeat