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Tab Berg

Arenas, Principles, Voters and Outcomes.

Last week I commissioned a poll to measure voter attitudes regarding the proposed Arena in downtown Sacramento- the third time since 2006 that we have polled on this issue.

The Mayor has called this Arena deal the most important issue in the history of the city; the Sacramento Bee has devoted more column inches to it than any other issue this year; it has received more local TV news coverage than the Benghazi attacks, Gosnell murder trial, Medicare cuts, State Parks budget scandal, and the looming city, county and schools pension crises – combined.

It’s that important –  yet, no one thought to ask voters how they feel?

Polling is a tool commonly used by campaigns, government, media, business and public policy groups to measure public opinion. But oddly, there has been little, if any, polling done on this issue – at least none that has been publicly released.  Until now.

Funny thing is – some folks seem positively offended that we asked voters about how they feel.

The survey was unbiased, simple and straight forward – I reached out to proponents and opponents to draft the message questions.

The results were clear: nearly 80% of the public wants their voices to be heard, they want to vote on any deal that includes any form of public subsidy.

Poll Graphic

Support for a public vote was across the board: those who support the project and those who oppose it; Republicans and Democrats; men and women; young voters and old; and every ethnic group supported a public vote.

Questions regarding specifics of the proposed Sports and Entertainment project showed that people were almost evenly divided, and did not substantially change when voters were provided more details.

What does that mean in a political sense? It means that it would neither be a slam dunk, nor a sure winner at the ballot box – it means that voters are listening, paying attention and should be trusted to make a decision.

The public resoundingly rejected Measures Q&R in 2006 – which now even proponents admit was a monumentally bad deal; so it turns out voters have demonstrated better sense on this issue than local leaders.

Rather than run away from voters, Arena proponents should be engaging them.  One thing abundantly clear from the poll – voters know what’s at stake, they understand the broader issues, if not the nitty-gritty details (most of which don’t exist or aren’t widely available). Any successful PR, crisis management or campaign professional will tell you – don’t bury dissent, engage it; don’t run from crisis, get ahead of it. That means discussion, disclosure and transparency are healthy, effective and desirable.

In fact, there has been very little actual discussion or disclosure. The process has been far from transparent (public meetings were held before details were released, and only available publicly over a 3-day holiday weekend prior to the City Council’s preliminary vote).

The Sacramento Bee – who did an editorial about why they are devoting so much coverage to this issue – has apparently relegated itself to the role of cheerleader. Radio and TV media are doing their level best to avoid voters altogether – dedicating their coverage to a sports-talk show host driving a purple RV to New York and avoiding concerns of the majority of voters who don’t show up to council meetings wearing funny hats.

Reactions from fans was predictable – folks who dye their children’s hair team colors, tattoo team logos on their bellies, and are propelled to near-violence at the very presence of fan from another team (much less another viewpoint) aren’t expected to react rationally.

More disappointing is the paternal response from those wearing mantles of champions for taxpayers, open government and voter rights. Denying the public’s right to vote because “they can’t possibly understand the deal” is not only inaccurate – voters clearly have a better sense of a good deal than those who proposed and defended Measures Q&R and later for deals with the Maloofs – but it undermines the very principle of voter approval and the critical check it provides on government overspending and overreach. Standing on principle is easy when there is nothing at stake or when you like the potential outcome.

Some folks have gotten themselves in a twitter – and while I mostly appreciate the unique spelling, oblique threats and clever pejoratives, I’ve been quite open about my reservations regarding short-circuiting voter rights; incomplete, dissembling and inaccurate information; and using public money or resources to subsidize private business without voters’ approval.  Having an opinion doesn’t preclude anyone from engaging in an adult, respectful debate.  Arena advocates have, unfortunately, focused on the former and avoided the later.  Apparently, only those chanting pre-approved slogans praising any deal to build an arena are allowed to speak.

I do not stand with those who simply oppose building anything – much less an arena. I’m not a member, donor or related-by-a-distant-cousin.  In fact, I support construction and development – including the Arena. I support efforts to cut fees, red tape and over-regulation to spark private development in the Depot/Riverfront district… or downtown…  The new group bidding for the Kings would provide welcome relief to recent neglect by current owners, and is headed by Vivek Ranadive‘ – a American success story and part owner of the revived Golden State Warriors, who ironically are privately financing their own new arena. But my desire for a particular outcome doesn’t supersede the rights of voters to be heard.

A broad array of powerful interests – lobbyists, billionaires, city and state officials, business leaders, reporters, and activists – have cajoled, threatened retaliation, and challenged me for having the temerity to ask voters how they feel – much try to discuss an issue or stand up for the right of voters to be heard.

Some claim voters can’t possibly understand or be trusted to make this decision – although all evidence is to the contrary: voters rescued the city from two blunderous deals already and polling clearly shows they understand this issue.

The same complexity claim was made about the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare)- which the public opposed, and now even the authors are questioning; and efforts to clean up the 4000 byzantine pages of education code that has hamstrung reform efforts. Voters instinctively understood that the government-run health care program was a problem, and understand that education reform is vital to give student a chance to succeed.

In other words, contrary to claims, voters get it. awryThey are also the ones who get stuck with the bill if government plans inexplicably go awry.

Perhaps, however, these leaders, lobbyists, politicians and uberfans are right. Maybe voters don’t deserve to be heard and can’t be trusted. Maybe I am too leery of government and civic leaders choosing outcomes over principles. Maybe I just have too much time on my hands and am too willing to stand up.  I mean, if the defenders of taxpayers, transparency and voter rights won’t stand up – or even have a discussion – why should I?

But then again, perhaps the studious efforts to avoid a respectful discussion, determination to dismiss the public, and threats of retaliation call for a response. Maybe a good, old-fashioned, Katy-bar-the-door brawl is just what this issue – and this city – needs.