Judge tosses out STOP lawsuit on Kings arena

With a judge unwilling to overlook their mistakes, two Sacramento taxpayer groups lost their legal fight Wednesday to force a vote on the city’s planned $258 million contribution toward a new downtown Kings arena.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley, in a strongly worded decision, ruled the two groups had filed signature petitions “infected with errors” that violated state election laws. He also sided with city attorneys who argued the proposed ballot measure would violate the city charter because it sought “to restrict the City Council’s future power to manage its financial affairs.”

Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork, or STOP, and Voters for a Fair Arena Deal had submitted more than 22,000 signatures from city voters supporting a ballot measure that, if approved, would have required voter approval of public contributions to sports facilities. But City Clerk Shirley Concolino disqualified those signatures last month, ruling that the groups had omitted key legal language on varying versions of the petitions.

STOP sued the city in an attempt to overrule the clerk’s decision and place the measure on the June ballot.

Frawley’s ruling wasn’t a surprise; he indicated last week during a court hearing that errors in the petitions represented a “fatal flaw.”

Unless STOP and the Fair Arena group can get his ruling overturned on appeal, the decision clears one of the most significant legal obstacles facing the $448 million arena at Downtown Plaza. STOP said it hasn’t decided whether to appeal, but issued a statement blasting city leaders for making “a mockery of democracy.”

“We call on Sacramento’s disenfranchised voters to express their outrage to their City Council, and we call on our elected representatives to begin listening to their constituents,” the statement read. “It is not too late for the city’s arena deal to receive the public scrutiny and debate that it deserves.”

Mayor Kevin Johnson, who has championed the new arena, hailed the court ruling.

“Time and time again, outsiders have tried to undermine the right of Sacramento to control the destiny of our Kings, our downtown and our future,” the mayor said in a prepared statement. “Time and time and time again, we have stepped up to the challenge and stood tall. Today is no exception.”

The new building must open by 2017 or the NBA has the right to buy the Kings and move them out of town.

City Attorney James Sanchez indicated that time is already running out on an appeal. To get the measure on the June ballot, the taxpayers’ groups would need an emergency order from the appeals court by Monday, he said.

Such a quick turnaround is “very difficult to gain,” Sanchez said.

STOP and the Fair Arena conceded that mistakes were made in the petition process, but argued they were too minor to deprive voters of the chance to vote on the arena subsidy.

Frawley, however, said the “volume and magnitude” of the mistakes left him no choice but to dismiss the case. “The court is not aware of any case where the petition process, from beginning to end, was so infected with errors,” he wrote.

Among other things, the petitions omitted the “enacting clause” that made clear the proposed initiative would become law if passed by the voters. The proponents also left their names off the required legal notice published in the Sacramento Observer newspaper.

Jessica Levinson, an election-law expert at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the ruling was remarkable in its decisiveness. While election law does excuse some errors in the signature-gathering process, Frawley went out of his way to note the seriousness of STOP’s errors, she said.

“This is not a judge saying this is a close call,” she said. “This wasn’t a, ‘You forgot to indent this paragraph.’ ”

Other legal issues remain before the arena project can break ground this fall, as scheduled. A second lawsuit, filed by some of the same anti-arena proponents, accuses the city of lying to the public about the true value of the proposed subsidy. That case is pending before the same judge.

The City Council is scheduled to certify an environmental impact report on the project in early April. Court challenges to that document would need to be filed within 30 days.

The city has also filed an eminent domain lawsuit seeking to wrest control of the former Macy’s furniture and men’s clothing store, in the southeast corner of the arena site, from a group of financial institutions.

A firm representing the trust that controls the property is fighting the lawsuit and has asked that the case be moved to Alameda County, where the firm argues the case would get a fairer hearing. If a judge denies that request, a ruling on the eminent domain lawsuit is scheduled for March 11.

Frawley’s ruling avoids what likely would have been a costly, bitter political campaign.

The mayor had formed a political action committee funded by the Kings that was tasked with defeating the measure.

For months, Johnson has painted the petition effort as a potential blow to downtown development that was largely funded by people who live outside the city. Most notoriously, the campaign got a secret $100,000 donation from Chris Hansen, the investor who tried to buy the Kings and move them to Seattle last year. STOP said it didn’t know the donation, routed through an Orange County political consultant, came from Hansen until he was fined for violations of the California campaign finance disclosure laws in August.

Hansen apologized for the donation and begged STOP not to use the thousands of signatures gathered with his money. STOP refused.

The lawsuit, meanwhile, was funded by an agribusinessman who lives just outside the city limits and a group of nonunion electrical contractors angry that the arena is going to be built almost exclusively with union labor.

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