Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: City Charter doesn’t allow for public vote on arena

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

If there is one critical issue that’s been obscured in the months of public debate over building a downtown arena in Sacramento, it’s that our elected officials are empowered by a city charter to decide the financing of such projects.

Yes, that authority trumps the wishes of those who want the arena to go to a public vote.

Yet until Friday, all of the attention has focused on whether a judge would accept the petitions circulated by proponents of an arena ballot measure.

He did not. In a preliminary ruling Friday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley said numerous errors and omissions on the petitions added up to “fatal flaws” that will likely disqualify 22,938 arena vote signatures when the judge issues his final ruling this week.

But even more significantly, Frawley agrees with the city that it has the legal right to decide how to pay for the downtown arena – without a vote of the public.

In legal briefs filed by the city, the argument goes like this: The city charter is Sacramento’s municipal constitution.

“All powers of the city shall be vested in the City Council except as otherwise provided in this Charter,” the city’s lawyers wrote in their briefs opposing a vote on the arena.

While residents can successfully petition for a public vote on some issues, under the city charter they cannot if their efforts amount to an attempt to restrain the City Council from setting fiscal policy, according to the city’s lawyers.

If Sacramento residents want to alter that authority, an amendment to the city charter has to be approved by the voters first. Otherwise, the push to put the arena before voters is effectively an illegal charter amendment.

In this case, the city charter is also serving as a safeguard against the influence of an outsider who did not have Sacramento’s best interests at heart.

Arena vote proponents indirectly received substantial help in their petition drive from hedge-fund billionaire Chris Hansen, who unsuccessfully sought to buy the Kings and move them to his hometown of Seattle.

Without the money Hansen put up to gather signatures, arena vote proponents would not have collected enough of them to qualify for a public vote on the arena.

In the absence of the city charter, Hansen’s push for an arena vote may have come to fruition. But with the charter, the authority over city finances remains in the hands of officials who were elected by the voters of Sacramento.

With Hansen’s meddling and with arena vote proponents circulating petitions rife with flaws, the arena movement is revealed as being the opposite of what it purports to be.

It seeks to break rules that are democratically supported by the residents of Sacramento.

In November 2012, Sacramento residents had an opportunity in Measure M to create a charter commission that would have studied city charter changes over a two-year period.

But voters soundly rejected Measure M. It received only 26 percent of the vote in a presidential election year with a high voter turnout.

This is a point arena vote proponents refuse to acknowledge – the process to finance an arena through decisions by the Sacramento City Council is backed by long-held rules that voters have been loath to amend.

For example, this November, Sacramento residents will consider changing the city charter to grant the mayor’s office more authority.

Just like today’s arena vote proponents, supporters of Mayor Kevin Johnson years ago collected enough signatures to put his strong-mayor plan on the ballot.

But a 2009 lawsuit filed by union leaders blocked Johnson’s path, citing his signature-gathering campaign as an illegal attempt to amend the city charter.

Guess what the courts did? They upheld the Sacramento City Charter. It was ordered that if Johnson wanted to get strong-mayor proposal onto a ballot, he would have to secure a majority vote of the nine-member City Council to send it forward.

Johnson finally did that last November, but barely by a 5-4 vote – nearly five years after first trying to land more authority and budgetary discretion.

Here’s the point to remember: These city rules have remained consistent for decades irrespective of politics.

There are people in town who had no problem with Johnson’s “power grab” being stopped by the courts because of Sacramento’s city charter – but suddenly they don’t care about the charter and they want a vote on the arena.

I’m sorry, but that’s not democratic. It’s anything but.

Judge Frawley has given lawyers for arena vote proponents until Tuesday to submit written arguments that would explain why he should disregard Sacramento’s city charter.

They may argue the arena is a special project and that allowing the public to vote on it will not strip the Sacramento City Council of its fiscal authority.

It is unlikely Frawley will change his mind that the arena project is central to the authority of the Sacramento City Council.

The arena is part of an overall strategy to retain the Kings while at the same time bolstering a dying Downtown Plaza shopping mall. Nearly a decade ago, city leaders coveted the Downtown Plaza as an arena site, but the previous mall owners were not cooperative. The mall and the streets around it eroded, causing blight in the heart of downtown.

With a mall ownership change, and with a clearing of troublesome landlords in adjacent properties, the city has a chance to create an amenity that triggers downtown revival.

Municipal leaders also wanted to maintain control over Sleep Train Arena and the land around it, control the city would have lost had the Kings been purchased by Hansen and moved to Seattle.

This is one of the most consequential policy decisions the current council will ever make and seven of nine council members approved a nonbinding term sheet with the Kings to get the ball rolling.

Do some residents have every right to oppose the project? Of course. But if you really want to alter the project or stop it, then do so according to the rules.

Arena vote proponents didn’t, and it’s why they are about to lose.

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