Councilmembers, NBA upset over arena task force comments
Sacramento City Council members and the National Basketball Association are angry or unhappy with comments made Tuesday by the mayor’s arena team leader.
Several council members are upset after Sacramento First Task Force co-chair Chris Lehane seemed to be speaking on behalf of the city when he called the NBA’s previous attempts to get an arena built here "air balls" and made other comments on the organization’s website blog Tuesday morning.
Council members Ray Tretheway and Rob Fong responded to Lehane’s comments at the end of Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
"I was terribly embarrassed by the disrespectful message that publicly humiliated the commissioner of basketball that came out of Sacramento First," said Tretheway, whose district includes Downtown, proposed as one potential location for a new arena. "The NBA officially has been a great partner with the city — a longtime partner."
At least two other council members privately said they were upset over the comments, he added Wednesday.
NBA Commissioner David Stern and consultant John Moag, who owns the sports investment banking firm Moag & Co., spent two years working on a plan to build the new arena at Cal Expo. Three weeks ago, Moag and Stern, together with the Maloofs and local developers, pitched a new plan to build the arena in the Downtown railyards.
Mayor Kevin Johnson, once an NBA star, formed the volunteer task force three months ago to expedite development of a new arena to spur the city’s economic growth — which he has identified as top priorities. Johnson has said he’d like the arena built Downtown and that the railyards would be one possible site. While playing for the Phoenix Suns, he saw Phoenix get revitalized after he helped bring an arena to that city’s downtown.
Johnson recruited task force co-chair Lehane, a San Francisco political and public relations strategist who was dubbed one of the "masters of disaster" for his work controlling damage during President Bill Clinton’s administration. Lehane is volunteering on the task force, as are 11 others, who work in business, finance, politics, development and labor.
Tuesday night, Fong said the task force’s efforts should not be disregarded. However, he, Tretheway and other council members don’t like the way Lehane’s comments seemed to be representing the official city position.
“I do think lines get crossed when they pretend to speak for the city of Sacramento because it is a volunteer effort," Fong said. “If at some point, if the city of Sacramento is to be the lead agency, so to speak, on arena efforts, then it really should be the city of Sacramento that’s speaking on its own behalf.”
Lehane is expected to discuss the start of the task force’s four-week proposal-review process at a press conference at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Citizen Hotel, 926 J St.
His comments that upset council members were made Tuesday in a blog post, where he explained the NBA’s support for one of seven Sacramento arena proposals doesn’t guarantee that plan will be adopted by the task force or the city.
The NBA and other development teams have been "lobbying public officials" and "putting out their spin." But the sports and entertainment center task force is just starting to evaluate the proposals and doesn’t want to "give the public the bum’s rush," Lehane blogged.
“Since 2006, the NBA has ‘endorsed’ two other proposals that never came to fruition. Just because a deal may sound like a lay-up to the NBA doesn’t mean it is a finger roll for Sacramento," he wrote. “Despite well-meaning work over the years, the NBA has shot two air balls in its past efforts — the city needs to make sure that this process results in a slam dunk for the public.”
Lehane’s comments were later released to reporters. On Tuesday, Tretheway and Fong spoke to NBA representatives, including someone working for Moag. Those representatives "confirmed how upset the NBA was," Tretheway said.
The NBA and Moag did not wish to respond publicly to Lehane’s comments.
"We’re not going to comment," said Karen Skelton of the Boston-based public relations firm Dewey Square Group, which represents Moag and the NBA.
Johnson didn’t respond to Tretheway’s and Fong’s concerns at the council meeting. Earlier that day, neither he nor his staff would discuss Lehane’s comments or any lobbying that has been going on.
But Jeremiah Jackson, a task force project coordinator, said lobbying on behalf of certain proposals won’t change the arena team’s mission as the task force begins weighing all the proposals.
"We know the NBA will support a deal that works for them," he said. "But we want to make sure Sacramento gets behind a deal that works for us."
The NBA is a partner in a plan spearheaded by developer Gerry Kamilos. The NBA and Moag are negotiating on behalf of the Maloofs, who own the Sacramento Kings franchise and its current home, Arco Arena.
The plan proposes building a 19,000-seat sports and entertainment arena at the Downtown railyards on land donated by the city. That project would be financed in part by the group’s ability to buy Cal Expo and developing a mixed-use, master-planned neighborhood there, Moag said. The group also proposes the city and the Maloofs turn Arco Arena and the adjacent land over to the state for the new fairgrounds, and that the city forgive a $68.5 million loan to the Maloofs.
Tuesday night, council members directed the city manager’s office to draft a letter for the council "to reaffirm how much we value the partnership and long-time support of the NBA to have an NBA team in Sacramento," Tretheway said Wednesday.
Development teams will make half-hour presentations to the task force in two weeks. The task force is expected to make recommendations to the mayor on March 11.
Vote for your preferred location for a sports and entertainment arena at sacramentofirst.org.
Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for the Sacramento Press. Sacramento Press reporter Kathleen Haley contributed to this report.