Group challenges petitions for vote on arena subsidy

A pro-arena group aligned with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and labor unions has sent city and county elections officials a letter contending that petitions submitted in support of a June vote on Kings arena subsidies have “fatal defects” that make them noncompliant with state election law.

In a Friday letter, Sean Welch, an attorney for the political group called The4000, said there are at least five versions of the petitions, each with slightly different wording. He contends the disparities make the signatures on at least some of those petitions invalid.

“It is the ministerial duty of elections officials to review each and every section of the petition to determine that the legal requirements of the Elections Code are met in each instance,” Welch wrote. “If they are not, the election official is duty bound to reject the petition.”

City Attorney James Sanchez said the concerns raised in Welch’s letter are “being evaluated and addressed” as the petitions are validated.

The petition drive, backed by two anti-subsidy groups, gathered an estimated 35,249 signatures, according to a rough count conducted by county elections officials. Those signatures are being vetted by the county Voter Registration office. Figures released Monday showed that of the first 1,737 signatures counted, 1,206 were found to be valid.

If 22,000 of the signatures are determined to be from registered city voters, a measure will likely be placed on the June ballot for voter approval. The measure, if passed, would require future voter approval of subsidies for professional sports stadiums.

City and county elections officials have until Jan. 23 to determine if there are enough valid signatures.

The petitioners’ attorney, Bradley Hertz of the Sutton Law Firm, said California courts have ruled in favor of petition validity in cases in which there were small errors. In a recent letter to Sacramento City Clerk Shirley Concolino, Hertz described the differences in the petitions filed by Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork and Voters for a Fair Arena Deal as “both inadvertent and extremely minor printing errors.”

“We’re not concerned,” Hertz said Monday. “We believe it is just a tactic by the opponents to create doubt or confusion. We don’t think the registrar or city clerk have the authority to do anything other than their ministerial task of validating the signatures and coming up with the final number of signatures. We believe any arguments about whether the various versions of the petition are valid would have to be raised before a judge, and not the city or the county.”

The pro-arena group’s letter contained five examples of different petition forms. In all versions, the petitions clearly state their purpose and use nearly identical wording. The petitions call for a public vote “to prohibit the city of Sacramento from using general fund money for the development of a professional sports arena without voter approval.”

The city has a conceptual agreement with the owners of the Sacramento Kings to jointly finance and build a $448 million arena in the Downtown Plaza. The city’s contribution to the project is capped at $258 million.

Welch, an attorney with a prominent Sacramento political firm, Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni, noted that the petition forms fail to include an “enacting clause,” which is required under state law. Different versions of the petitions also have different dates on them.

County Registrar of Voters Jill LaVine said her office has already separated out the various versions of the petitions, and is awaiting word from the city on whether it believes any of the versions should be rejected.

“I’m tossing it back to the city and their attorney for their determinations,” she said. “Whatever the city and their attorney decide it is up to them.”

The county began doing its signature validation count on Friday, LaVine said. She said county officials got a late start because they first had to count the names of people who signed a separate petition saying they had signed the anti-subsidy petition but wanted their names removed. LaVine said the county has 9,773 names on that list but has not yet checked to see how many of them actually signed the initial petition.

“We will call in extra people, and I have asked the staff to start some overtime,” LaVine said.

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