Power-play days

On next June's city council races, arena initiatives and Walmart referendums

It’s Labor Day, traditionally the time that the next election begins to come into focus. And Sacramento city’s June primary will likely be a feast for political junkies. Consider: Sacramento Tomorrow is out there trying to build support for another strong-mayor initiative, which could also go on the ballot as early as June. And strong mayor may not even be the main course.

There are four Sacramento City Council seats up for re-election, and at least two of them are guaranteed to turn over because their current occupants, Steve Cohn and Darrell Fong, have decided to run for two different seats in the state Assembly. Another council member, Kevin McCarty, is joining Cohn in the race for the 7th Assembly District, and has a good chance at winning, thus opening his council seat later in the year.

The two other council incumbents, Angelique Ashby and Jay Schenirer, seem from here pretty likely to be re-elected, though Bites wonders how key neighborhoods in Schenirer’s district, like Curtis Park and Oak Park, feel about his support for eliminating restrictions on big-box stores like Walmart, and footing the bill for the new Kings arena. Schenirer himself said, when he ran for city council, “I’d love to see an entertainment [and] arena complex downtown but do not favor any public subsidies.” Likewise, McCarty—who voted against scrapping the city’s big-box ordinance—is probably loving the fact that Cohn voted with Walmart in the superliberal 7th District.

The Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork arena initiative may yet make the June ballot, too. That’s less certain now that people like Region Builders’ Joshua Wood and Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton are openly calling for the destruction of thousands of signatures of Sacramento residents—complaining those signatures are tainted by money from despised Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen.

Burning petitions is, of course, way, way out of proportion to Hansen’s $100,000 check, a blatant violation of the rights of the thousands of Sacramento citizens who signed those petitions in good faith. Hansen probably couldn’t care less and would go along with the voter purge if it meant he could begin to get back into the good graces of the NBA. Still, STOP would probably have a pretty decent lawsuit against Hansen if it comes to that.

Speaking of ballot long shots: Last week, as this column was being filed, local labor groups were considering their own ballot referendum to roll back the Sacramento City Council’s vote to gut the city’s big-box ordinance. The idea would be to gather enough signatures—about 22,000—to place a referendum on the ballot, and allow voters to reject or uphold the council’s decision last week to get rid of the city’s big-box rules.

But because the labor groups would be trying for a referendum instead of a ballot initiative, the state constitution only allows 30 days after publication of the new law for the signatures to be gathered and turned in. That’s a heavy lift, and, as this column was being written, it wasn’t clear if one of the key unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was onboard with the referendum. Labor leader Bill Camp said labor groups were “still trying to figure out what our options are,” in response the superstore vote.

If the Walmart referendum did make the ballot, it would at least keep needed focus on the way Mayor Kevin Johnson and other council members solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars from Walmart and the Waltons for their pet causes, then voted in Walmart’s interest.

Local Democratic activist Eric Sunderland filed a complaint earlier this month against the mayor with the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the California attorney general for soliciting $800,000 from Walmart and The Walton Family Foundation—much of which went into nonprofit groups the mayor created.

But City Attorney James Sanchez said that the mayor’s behest of Walmart money, along with the $8 million donation from the Walton foundation to StudentsFirst, the education lobbying group run by Johnson’s wife, Michelle Rhee, “did not rise to the level” of a conflict of interest that would have required Johnson to recuse himself from last week’s vote.

Ethical implications of all that Walmart money aside, some just don’t appreciate it when uppity citizens try to go to the ballot and overturn a council decision. As Councilman Steve Hansen complained in the Bee last week: “’Every time there is something you don’t like, you (get the public to) vote on it? … You don’t need me then.’”

He was commenting on STOP’s measure. Different context, but the idea’s the same. “Wouldn’t a Walmart referendum be another attempted end-run around the council?” Bites asked. Camp replied, “In fact, it is a democracy. In a democracy, citizens have a right to stop an abuse of power.”