Sacramento needs to update its sports policy, which says arena subsidies can only be approved by voters

The public's right to vote was never a nuisance. It's a legitimate policy that has been on the books for years.

Here’s an excerpt from the city of Sacramento’s “sports policy” on publicly funded arenas and other facilities, adopted by the city council in 1996:

“Any amount of direct public subsidy for facility development will be considered only with approval by Sacramento voters through a referendum process.”

Didn’t know the city had a sports policy? You’re not alone. The sports-policy resolution was adopted in the run-up to a 1997 council decision to loan the Sacramento Kings $73 million. It was also around this time there was talk of trying lure Major League Baseball to the city.

The policy lays out scenarios and conditions for subsidizing and incentivizing sports teams. This has been an ongoing concern of this city, you may have noticed.

There are several provisions, none of which the city follows, including the one that says the city manager “is responsible for providing information on the economic impacts of sports franchises.”

The sports policy was never exactly binding anyway. Rob Kerth, a council member at the time (and now SMUD board member, again) recalls that since the Kings loan of 1997 would eventually be paid back, it was decided it didn’t trigger the public-vote requirement. Furthermore, Kerth noted resolutions are the “considered opinion” of the council, not the law of the land.

“In the current situation, the council has approved a project that doesn’t seem to follow its own policies. It is always the council’s right to do this,” Kerth says. The danger is merely that “staff, project proponents and the public will all eventually come to wonder which, if any, of the council’s adopted policies still matter to the council.”

No big deal. Bites brings up the city’s forgotten sports policy not because it presents some legal obstacle to current arena proposal. But because it highlights one of the more dishonest arguments being made by the arena boosters club: That citizens have no power to participate in this decision, other than pep rallies and the occasional election. That a public vote on the arena subsidy is unneeded, unheard of or just a nuisance. The folks spreading this idea are either unaware of the city’s history, or they are obscuring it.

Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork made itself an easy target in many ways, starting with its name. Whether Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley would toss the signatures of 23,000 citizens because of the petition errors always seemed like a 50-50 proposition.

But Bites was surprised that Frawley bought into the boosters’ argument that voter approval is somehow usurping the power of the city council. After all, the STOP initiative, for all its problems, only codified a policy the city council itself set long ago.

It’s OK to change that policy. And if the considered opinion of the council is now “no public votes on sports subsidies,” then the council should adopt a new policy and explain the change in public.

But you can’t pretend the old policy didn’t exist. You can’t pretend that the plurality of citizens who liked that policy are somehow being unreasonable when it asks the city to stick to it. Or that a public vote on sports subsidies was some sort of foreign, far-out idea.

As Bites has written before, the STOP initiative was always a clunky tool for the job. A referendum, where voters confirm or reject the council’s arena actions would be more elegant.

The problem with the referendum—and the reason why STOP went the route that it did—is that the law only allows 30 days to gather enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.

Also, city officials believe the council’s arena vote can’t be subject to a referendum, because it’s not an “ordinance.” Only ordinances are subject to referendum, the argument goes, not major city-changing expenditures of hundreds of millions of dollars.

“That’s completely wrong. These are clearly subject to a referendum,” says Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup, a history and critique of California’s direct democracy. He says courts have held citizens can vote on “legislative acts,” which enact policies or projects, regardless of whether they are called “ordinance.”

And Paul says election code explicitly allows for citizens to hold a referendum on the issuance of government bonds. In fact, in the case of bonds, the law allows 60 days to collect signatures, and the overall signature requirement is lower. About 12,000 signatures would be required to put Sacramento’s arena bonds to a public vote.

It may be that there’s no more appetite for more signatures and petitions. Bites is certainly a bit burned out. But don’t be fooled. The public’s right to vote was never a nuisance. It’s a legitimate policy that has been on the books for years. And it’s still possible.