Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | A Holy Suit

On behalf of Kearny Mesa-based Canyon Ridge Baptist Church, attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund have filed suit against the city of San Diego, claiming that the church is being charged higher rent fees than non-religious groups.

The lawsuit alleges that the church is classified as a “private group” and thus must pay a higher rate to rent facilities at the Kearny Mesa Recreation Center. ADF, a Christian advocacy organization, claims that the city should classify the church as a “community group” and charge it the same rate as groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or the American Red Cross.

The recreation center is also closed Sundays, forcing the church to pay $21.25 per hour to hold services during non-operation hours. ADF says the actions of the city violate the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Nobody from ADF was available for immediate comment, as most employees were off for Christmas vacation.

ADF filed suit against California State University, Long Beach and San Diego State University less than a month ago. In that case, ADF alleged that the universities violated four religious groups’ right to association by mandating that the groups either amend their bylaws to allow non-Christians or forego their rights to become an official campus group.

— SAM HODGSON

Council Legal Bills

The Mayor’s Office said today it plans to release by next week copies of the legal bills for City Council members in connection with the ongoing federal investigations.

Although most legal bills for city employees go through the City Attorney’s Office, City Attorney Mike Aguirre said that the council members have instead been running their billings through the City Manager’s Office.

Mayor Jerry Sanders now essentially oversees the City Manager’s Office. The decision was made today to formulate a process so that the bills are released to the public minus any sensitive information, a spokesman said.

City Council members say the extra legal bills would not be necessary if Aguirre would have allowed his office to represent them.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Person to Watch

Santa has made an early visit to the Voice headquarters this year.

Andrew Donohue, executive editor, Voice of San Diego, has been named by San Diego Magazine as one of San Diego’s 50 People To Watch in 2006. The list honors notable newsmakers and personalities throughout the county.

Voice of San Diego has only been around a short time yet Andy’s stories have almost single-handedly made us a daily must-read for anybody who is interested in the city’s politics,” comments Scott Lewis, Voice co-executive editor. “And now, as we approach our one-year anniversary, he will oversee our news coverage and help us spread our success to other corners of the region in dire need of the kind of journalism he has mastered.”

Donohue has been with Voice since its inception, and oversees news coverage and reports on local politics. Most recently, Donohue swept the “Daily Newspaper, Breaking News” category at the 2005 San Diego Press Club Awards for his coverage of the pension scandal and Mayor Murphy’s resignation. Before coming to Voice, he was a reporter in Washington D.C. and Virginia. He’s no stranger to local politics, Donohue also covered city hall for The San Diego Daily Transcript .

Look for Donohue and fellow honorees in an upcoming edition of San Diego Magazine .

—DENISE SCATENA

New Aguirre Report

On the heels of a report from the city auditor slamming the reliability of the city’s financial reporting processes, City Attorney Mike Aguirre released his own assessment of the city’s internal controls today.

Aguirre’s report states that the City Council has failed to properly control its finances by failing to:

— Properly monitor the duties and billing of consultants working on investigations into its financial mess. This includes Kroll Inc., the firm currently investigating city finances, as well as Vinson & Elkins. The Houston-based law firm produced two investigative reports, at a cost of $6 million, that failed to satisfy the Securities and Exchange Commission and the city’s outside auditors.

— Ensure that its appointees to the pension board would grant investigators access to sensitive documents. The report also faults the pension trustees for allowing its two top staff members to remain in control of the system while both have been identified as targets in a Justice Department probe — at a time when the city’s biggest problems are found in the pension system.

Aguirre said the findings are in conflict with statements from a number of council members that the city has some of the toughest controls nationwide.

“You can’t go out and tell everybody you have the toughest rules in the country and not comply with them,” he said.

City Auditor John Torell’s report, released this week, centered solely on the Auditor’s Office he inherited earlier this year. It found that his office lacked the training, candidness and processes to produce a reliable accounting of city finances. The report did not address any issues outside of his office. (A summary of the report can be found below in a This Just In entry from yesterday).

Councilwoman Donna Frye and Toni Atkins have called for upheaval at the pension system. However, a vote to remove pension board president Peter Preovolos failed by a vote of 3 to 3. Councilmen Jim Madaffer and Scott Peters have been the most vocal in opposition to Aguirre and support of the city’s current game plan.

Aguirre also offered a New Year’s resolution:

“I’m going to fight harder and I am going to be less passive in pushing reform for the city of San Diego. I will not sit back and fiddle while San Diego burns.”

ANDREW DONOHUE

Build the Library!

San Diego District 2 City Council candidate Kevin Faulconer said Wednesday he supports construction of the new downtown library. His opponent in the race, Lorena Gonzalez, is also “fully committed” to the $185 million project.

But Faulconer’s support had been in question. He was a member of the board of directors of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which has been hostile to the library plan for years.

The association has argued against the project because of concerns about the cost of the project while the city works through what many call a financial “crisis.”

Faulconer said the library still needs to be built.

“The library enjoys a wide variety of support,” Faulconer said. “Our biggest focus is how we secure funding for ongoing operations and maintenance and I do believe private funding can play a role in both of those.”

Proponents of the library hope to raise $85 million from private philanthropists to support its construction. They’ve so far raised $3 million.

Much of the rest of the $100 million needed for the library’s construction will come from the Centre City Development Corp. — the redevelopment agency for San Diego’s downtown. And despite downtown’s lack of fire protection and other potential infrastructure needs, Faulconer said the CCDC’s support of the library this year is “appropriate.”

“The library is a resource for knowledge and learning but it’s also a civic resource — a gathering spot for civic pride and the heart and soul of the urban downtown,” Faulconer said. 

— SCOTT LEWIS

Feliz Subpoena

Federal investigators have delivered a new subpoena to City Hall seeking more documents related to the pay and pension of firefighter union President Ron Saathoff.

The subpoena seeks annual leave, sick leave, vacation time and other leave information for Saathoff, a politically influential union president who also sat on the pension board. The subpoena also seeks information related to Saathoff using the leave time to purchase years of service credit.

Employees are allowed to use a portion of their annual salary to purchase up to five years of service. The extra years then boost employees’ annual pensions once they retire.

Also, City Attorney Mike Aguirre is scheduled to release a report at 11 a.m. today on the city’s internal controls for financial reporting. A similar report from Auditor John Torell was released yesterday and found the city’s reporting processes, currently under civil and criminal investigation, to be inadequate.

The city attorney is also scheduled to comment on the pension board’s recent decision to provide legal representation for its two top staff members, who are reportedly targets of the ongoing Justice Department investigation. The staff members are administrator Larry Grissom and chief legal counsel Lori Chapin.

“We’re issuing a report today that basically says there continues to be a breakdown in the control environment because the council has not set the proper tone for the organization … to have an honest financial system because they appointed a pension board that is not truly independent (and) they allowed the pension board to fund the criminal defense for Chapin and for Grissom,” Aguirre said.

The Voice reported last month that attorneys close to the probe expect indictments in January.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Aguirre Seeks Donations

City Attorney Mike Aguirre has begun soliciting donations to repay loans he made to his campaign last year.

Aguirre sent letters to former supporters asking for donations.

“To reach voters with our message of reform and to counter the opposition’s negative campaign, we spent nearly $750,000 and exhausted our campaign coffers,” Aguirre said in a letter to supporters Dec. 12. “With this letter, I am asking you to help me rebuild this account by making a contribution.”

But the account he’s talking about is his own.

In his race for city attorney against Leslie Devaney, a former assistant city attorney, Aguirre gave his campaign $500,000 in personal funds. City law allows candidates to make an unlimited number of loans to their own campaigns.

Aguirre said Tuesday that although the money will go to him personally, he intends to use the money politically.

“We’re retiring some debt — we’re allowed to do that,” Aguirre said.

Candidates are barred from raising money for future elections until 12 months before that election. When asked about the fact that the debt was his own loan and the money would not necessarily go to his future campaign, Aguirre said his supporters could trust that their money would be used for political efforts.

“The only way I can be independent is if I maintain my personal resources so I don’t have to sell out,” Aguirre said. “Let’s say I want to put something on the ballot, it allows me to be independent so I can reinvest the money in any political things we need.”

Neither Aguirre, nor any other candidate, will be able to raise money to retire their debts this long after an election in the future. While candidates can solicit donations to pay debt incurred in their campaigns — even after they’re elected — new campaign laws implemented a year ago will give them a 180-day limit after being elected to do it.

It’s been more than a year since Aguirre took office. But because he was elected before the new laws took effect, Aguirre is allowed to seek the donations.

SCOTT LEWIS

Auditor on His Report

We just spoke with Auditor John Torell about the report explained in the previous This Just In entry (below):

On the report: “We’re basically just stating the obvious, we’re stating what the SEC and KPMG (the city’s outside auditor) are already aware of.”

On his predecessor Ed Ryan: “The auditor was part of the management team and the team was all on the same page. They wanted to enhance the city’s credit rating so they could go get some bonds.”

On what happens next: “We’ve got to take some corrective actions.”

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Troubling Disclosures

It was a fitting end to 2005 for the City Council today: They authorized more funds for consultants working on the investigation into City Hall’s finances and released an auditor’s report finding serious deficiencies in the city’s financial disclosure processes.

A report on internal controls from Auditor John Torell, who was hired earlier this year to clean up the city’s accounting, found a lack of adequate training, accessibility to data, honesty and organizational leadership within the Auditor’s Office.

As a result, the city still cannot be relied on to produce timely and accurate financial disclosures to the public and potential investors, according to the report.

“There appeared to be a general hesitancy on the part of staff to engage in open discussion of issues,” the report states.

The veracity of the city’s disclosures of its fiscal health has been under the microscope since misstatements were discovered in its financial disclosures in late 2003. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department are investigating.

The city’s credit rating and access to Wall Street for vital funding are on hold pending the resolution of the city’s issues.

The report also expresses concerns that the new Auditor’s Office will lose its coveted independence under the switch to a strong-mayor form of government on Jan. 3, at which time the auditor will be under the mayor-appointed chief financial officer.

Also today, the City Council authorized $272,000 to a firm handling an electronic documents database in connection with the ongoing investigations.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Come On Down!

The local tourism bureau said Tuesday that they expect travel to San Diego County to grow moderately in 2006.

Rainy weather, high fuel costs and a behemoth marketing campaign by Disneyland led to a slight decrease in tourism locally, but the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates that the number of visitors to the county will grow by nearly 2 percent over the next year.

Bright spots in next year’s forecast include the return of day visitors who were turned off by last winter’s rains and that business at the port district’s cruise line terminal continues to grow.

Additionally, ConVis forecasted that the local tourism industry will garner higher receipts because of expected increases to the number of visitors and travel costs, such as hotel room rates.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Surf’s ‘Going to Be Beautiful’

A big swell out of the Central Pacific could produce waves up to 20 feet by tomorrow afternoon, according to forecasters. The surf should start building today, with some sets breaking around nine feet, according to the National Weather Service. Then, tomorrow, west-facing beaches should see some monster surf, said San Diego lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky.

“There’s going to be a huge bump in the swell between noon and 2 p.m.” Stropky said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

South of La Jolla, some beaches could see 12-to-15-foot waves, with some rolling in as high as 20 feet or more, the NWS predicted. The waves should start decreasing Thursday.

A NWS high surf advisory will be in effect until 4 p.m. tomorrow, and a coastal flood watch will be in effect until 4 p.m. Thursday.

The big surf could damage some piers, Stropky said.

WIRE REPORTS

Big News Tomorrow?

City Attorney Mike Aguirre said during a press conference Monday that he expected big news about the city’s financial situation.

“Tomorrow there are going to be very significant events about our city that you’re going to learn about in the next day as well,” Aguirre said. “Stay tuned.”

When asked by a reporter for a better hint, the city attorney kept quiet.

“Jerry Sanders is really making an effort to clean up the city,” Aguirre said. “I can alert you to some things, but I don’t want to jump the gun.”

Read about this lawsuit here.

A decision is due in early January, Aguirre said.

“It’s a bridge I don’t want to cross just yet,” he said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Aguirre Bitten By Watchdog Panel

City Attorney Mike Aguirre was fined $9,000 by the Ethics Commission on Monday for failing to properly report certain expenditures his campaign committee spent when he ran for office last November.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacy Fulhorst said the fine resulted from two ongoing disclosure problems — that the committee did not disclose how hired hands spent money for the campaign while also only reporting bills when they were paid but not when they were received.

Other violations were found on a sporadic basis but did not result in fines, Fulhorst said.

The audit of Aguirre’s campaign finances shows that the city attorney’s committee failed to report 37 instances when a campaign staffer or independent contractor working for Aguirre spent more than $500 on campaign expenses. About $316,000 was spent directly by others, mostly on airing advertisements or postage fees for campaign mailers, which should have been reported, the commission’s report states.

Aguirre also failed to report $55,000 in expenses that his campaign incurred but did not pay until the period designated for reporting those costs had expired.

The city attorney’s campaign committee was one of several campaign committees from 2004 that were randomly audited by the Ethics Commission. Aguirre made a voluntary filing this summer once it was learned that he failed to make those disclosures, the report says.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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