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Councilmen Seek Survey on L.A. Arena

Funding: Two who oppose taxpayer subsidy want polling on public spending before council takes up debate Oct. 1.

September 21, 1996|JEAN MERL and RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

LOS ANGELES — Betting that Los Angeles city taxpayers share their views, Councilmen Joel Wachs and Nate Holden on Friday called for the council to commission a public opinion survey before voting next month on whether to spend public funds on a privately owned and operated downtown sports arena.

The two councilmen oppose a taxpayer subsidy of the arena, and Wachs, citing the 500-plus calls that have poured into the telephone hotline his office set up this week, said: "The council should not be afraid to give the public an opportunity to have their say." He accused backers of the arena proposal, negotiated in quiet talks for nearly a year before its unveiling last month, of trying to "close the deal before the public gets a sense of what's going on."

The motion Wachs introduced Friday, seconded by Holden, calls for the council to spend up to $30,000 on a private polling firm to do the survey.

The council is scheduled to consider the motion Oct. 1, two weeks before it is supposed to make a binding decision on the sports arena proposal, which would bring the Kings and Lakers to a new arena complex at the Convention Center. Under the proposal forwarded by Kings hockey team owners, the city would pony up at least $60.5 million in bond proceeds to obtain and clear land for the project, also kicking in $24 million in city-owned property; officials estimate the net cost to repay the bonds would be $5 million a year for 25 years. The team owners would build the arena and plan later to add shops, restaurants and a hotel and would keep all the profits.

Steven L. Soboroff, an advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan who has been the city's chief negotiator on the deal, said he had no objection to such a survey, as long as it presented all the facts to the people polled.

"If it's factual information the people understand, of course it will be 99 to 1" in support of the deal, Soboroff said.

Surveys such as those Wachs and Holden are calling for have become common throughout the nation in recent years, as state and local lawmakers try to tap public opinion to help them shape policy or decide on tax or other spending issues, pollster John Fairbank said.

"It's one of the tools governments can put into the mix," said Fairbank, whose Santa Monica-based public opinion research company, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates, is one of a handful of firms specializing in such surveys.

The firm has polled residents in other cities about sports complexes, including Sacramento and Detroit, and tested attitudes for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission when it was negotiating with the since-departed Raiders football franchise in the late 1970s. The team moved here in 1982.

In general, public attitudes have tended to favor these proposals, Fairbank said, noting respondents must be given a "complete picture" so they can weigh public benefit against cost and can consider a host of related issues--in this case, efforts to revitalize much of downtown and the money-losing status of the Convention Center, where the arena would be built.

Meanwhile, sentiments expressed by callers to Wachs' admittedly unscientific telephone survey--555 by the close of business Friday--were running heavily against the proposal, the councilman said Friday.

"Is the City Council out of its mind?" one caller said. "You mean that the taxpayers are supposed to pay millions so the Kings can keep all of the profits from a new arena?"

"Heck, I've been trying to get the city to pave my road for 21 years without success," another caller complained. "I didn't know the city had that much money they could afford to do this," said another caller.

Mayoral advisor Soboroff said the negative comments don't surprise him because Wachs has distorted the facts.

"If they understand the transaction and understand both sides, the vote would be totally flipped," Soboroff said.

He said Wachs has created an illusion "that we're taking money from parks and schools to put into the arena," when, according to Soboroff, the arena would help to cut the deficit at the Convention Center that saps the city treasury of millions a year.

Some callers to Wachs' line expressed support for the deal, despite Wachs' contention that taxpayers would get little return on their investment.

One caller even suggested that Wachs' protests were helping the city that is competing with Los Angeles for the teams: "Everybody in Inglewood is for you."

"I think you're nuts," one caller chastised Wachs. "We need this arena. I don't know what your problem is."

Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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