Judge Weighs Sonics Lease At Keyarena

Friday, October 19th 2007, 7:41 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ Seattle's city attorney, Tom Carr, has no doubt about why he wants a judge _ not arbitrators _ deciding whether the SuperSonics must play the next three seasons at KeyArena.

``Arbitrators tend to compromise,'' he says. ``Judges tend to make decisions.''

Whether he gets his wish is now up to a judge. Lawyers for the city and the NBA franchise argued before U.S. District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez on Thursday about whether Martinez or a panel of arbitrators should hear the dispute, in which the Sonics ownership group is seeking to buy out its KeyArena lease and move the team.

Martinez promised to rule as quickly as possible, but did not say how soon that might be.

New Sonics chairman Clay Bennett, stymied in his quest for public funding to build a new arena, issued a demand for arbitration last month. In response, the city sued, trying to force the Sonics to honor the terms of a deal reached in the mid-1990s: In exchange for $74 million in renovations to the old Seattle Coliseum, the team agreed to play all of its home games there through Sept. 30, 2010.

Thursday's highly technical, hourlong arguments focused on two competing sections of the lease agreement. One says that disputes are to be settled through arbitration unless they pertain to certain subjects, including the length of the lease. The other section says that only the Sonics may seek injunctive relief in court, though either party may go to court to enforce the results of arbitration.

``You have a clause that says the city is barred from seeking judicial relief,'' Paul Taylor, an attorney for the Sonics, told the judge. ``The fact that that clause exists mandates arbitration.''

Taylor also sought to play the competing clauses to the team's advantage, telling the judge that the law requires any ambiguity to be resolved in favor of arbitration, which he called ``faster and more economical.''

The city disagreed with Taylor's interpretation, saying the judge's analysis should begin and end with the section that says disputes over the length of the lease may not be arbitrated. In the context of that clause, the other one _ saying only the Sonics can go to court _ makes no sense, argued lawyer Paul Lawrence. If the length of the lease can't be arbitrated, and the city can't go to court over the issue, it would have no recourse whatsoever, he said.

Lawrence also noted the draft history of the lease agreement. The initial draft, written by the Sonics' lead negotiator, simply said all issues were to be resolved by arbitration. In subsequent versions, certain topics were specifically excluded from arbitration _ clearly revealing the intent of the negotiators, he said.

In one court filing, the city argued that the second clause _ titled ``Limitations on Judicial Relief'' _ should have been deleted, but was mistakenly left in by negotiators rushing to finish the agreement. The Sonics' lawyer ridiculed that notion, saying the agreement has been reviewed countless times by lawyers and city officials.

``Frankly, it's been lawyered to death for 13 years,'' Taylor said. ``It's only now the city says there's a mistake.''

Among the team's complaints are that KeyArena is the smallest venue in the league and that under the lease agreement the Sonics must turn over too much of their revenue to the city. NBA commissioner David Stern has called the lease the worst for any team in the league.

The demand for arbitration states that the team has lost money every year since 1999 _ more than $55 million in the last five years alone. Last season the team lost $17 million.

The Sonics began playing in Seattle in 1967 and won the city's only men's professional sports title in 1979; the Storm won the WNBA title in 2004.