STOP denies city claim that arena initiative is unconstitutional

The groups trying to challenge Sacramento’s $258 million subsidy for the new Kings arena made their final legal argument Tuesday, rebutting the city’s claim that the proposed ballot initiative would be unconstitutional.

Facing long odds after Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley strongly indicated last week he would rule against them, Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork and Voters for a Fair Arena Deal made a last effort to put the subsidy question before the voters.

Frawley could rule at any time.

The city’s attorneys had argued that STOP’s proposed ballot initiative was an unconstitutional effort to rewrite the city charter because it would restrict the City Council’s ability to run public finances. Attorney Brad Hertz, representing STOP and the Fair Arena group, denied that.

“A plain reading of the measure demonstrates that it does not ‘restrict’ the power of the City Council, but only adds an additional step to the process of expending public funds for a sports arena,” Hertz wrote.

The lawyer suggested the city is as much to blame for any constitutional questions. STOP’s leaders obtained enough signatures (10 percent of the city’s voters) to qualify an ordinance for the ballot but not enough (15 percent) to qualify a charter amendment. The city “could have and should have” told the leaders they needed to reach 15 percent for a charter amendment, he wrote.

“The proponents had a right to expect more of their governmental officials and not to be ‘led down a primrose path’ only to be vigorously opposed by their own city officials in court,” he wrote.

Hertz also denied the city’s contention that the ballot initiative is “unconstitutionally vague.” In addition, he said courts should rule on “substantive challenges” to ballot initiatives only after the election has been held.

In a 90-minute hearing last week, Frawley indicated he was likely to agree with the city’s arguments about the constitutionality of the initiative but told Hertz to file legal papers responding to the city’s claim.

The judge also said he probably will agree with the city’s claim that the signed voter petitions turned in by STOP should be tossed out because of “fatal” errors in wording. But he has closed the books on that question and didn’t allow Hertz to submit any additional arguments.

The voters groups turned in more than enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the June ballot. City Clerk Shirley Concolino rejected the petitions because of the wording errors, prompting the lawsuit. At last week’s court hearing, Hertz conceded there were numerous errors in the petitions, but said they weren’t serious enough to toss out the initiative.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee