File photo by Sam Hodgson
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith
So much for super secret.
San Diego’s hoteliers are currently voting in an election that could raise visitor taxes by $1 billion to finance a Convention Center expansion. We’ve asked for the votes controlled by the city’s largest company, Host Hotels & Resorts.
But City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said the public isn’t allowed to know how many votes Host has. Goldsmith argued disclosing Host’s votes would be tantamount to revealing proprietary information about the company’s room revenues and put it at a competitive disadvantage. So he decided that keeping Host’s revenue secret took precedent over an open and transparent election.
But it turns out that most of the information that Goldsmith said he needed to keep secret isn’t a secret at all. It’s publicly available just by asking the Unified Port of San Diego.
So we asked.
The port provided room revenues for the company’s huge waterfront resorts, which are three out of the four hotels Host owns. For the period on which the company’s votes are based, the three hotels earned nearly $199 million from room sales. (Host’s hotel in Mission Valley wasn’t available because it doesn’t sit on port land.)
This incident continues to fray the legal knots twisted by backers of the Convention Center expansion.
We’re in this fight because we want to know how much power Host has to determine if the tax increase happens. In normal elections, the number of votes someone has isn’t difficult to figure out. But this election isn’t normal. It’s not just one vote for each of the four hotels Host owns in the city. Instead, hotels receive votes based on their room revenues and their proximity to the Convention Center. There are almost 27 million votes at stake.
Using the city’s formula and the port’s data, we calculated that Host’s three waterfront hotels entitle the company to 5.5 million votes. That’s about 21 percent of the total. It’s a lot, but not the full one-third Host would need to block the tax increase by itself. This figure includes the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Marriott Marquis & Marina and the Sheraton Harbor Island, but not the Host-owned Marriott in Mission Valley. Those votes won’t make a huge difference.
Our figures are only estimates. We cannot know Host’s exact vote total unless the city makes it public. We’re continuing to push for it. Felix Tinkov, a local public records attorney, said the port data undermines the city’s argument.
“I think the city is running out of reasons not to give you the votes,” Tinkov said.
California public records law requires governments to disclose information that’s already been revealed by another public agency. We sent Goldsmith’s office the port’s data on Tuesday afternoon. Goldsmith didn’t respond by our deadline.
Timing continues to matter here. Over the past month, Maryland-based Host and other hoteliers have used their secret electoral power as leverage in the Convention Center expansion debate. With Mayor Jerry Sanders’ backing, the hoteliers pushed for more control over center operations even if the expansion didn’t happen. A vice president at the Manchester Grand Hyatt said he didn’t know if his parent company would vote in favor of the tax increase without more private control over the center. The City Council gave the hoteliers their wish.
Six days after the council vote, the city sent out ballots to the hoteliers. They’re due back April 23. We’re still pushing for this election to be open and transparent.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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