Thursday, Aug. 30, 2007 | August is usually a pretty calm month around City Hall but on Aug. 13, people were scrambling.
A month earlier, members of the City Council and Centre City Development Corp. had joined 650 of the city’s elite for the party of the summer. Developer Doug Wilson, ready to declare the end of what he called 33 months of a slump in the condo market downtown, threw a bash to celebrate the opening of his 244-unit condo tower The Mark near Petco Park.
And what a bash it was.
It took two writers from the Union-Tribune and several photographers to document it in the local paper.
They were awed by the show.
Council President Scott Peters and a guest attended. Councilmen Jim Madaffer and Kevin Faulconer and guests also went. Wilson invited the entire board and staff of CCDC to the elite gathering. CCDC would only confirm that two of the seven board members attended and three did not. (The two who went were Jennifer LeSar and Janice Brown. As for the remaining two, well, I’m on pins and needles.)
The public servants, ever wary about city and state ethics laws, had their people call Wilson’s people to find out the cost of the event. After all, if it were more than $390, they would have to pay their own way. If it were less, and nothing crazy, they could just accept it as a gift and disclose it on their regular statements about these sorts of things.
Wilson’s people got back to the public officials: The party would cost them $65 each.
All was good.
Now, $65 per person might get you sushi and a ticket to the ball game but this party for The Mark was no sushi bar and the entertainment was no ball game.
After the U-T story ran with all these delicious details, City Hallers were a little worried. After all, the paper also quoted a cost for hosting the event as $325,000. That, as they rightly calculated, is more than $65 per person.
They called Wilson. What’s going on? It was even worse, actually. Wilson’s people later calculated the shindig’s cost at more than $523,000, or $805 per person.
Dilemma time. Public officials in California are prohibited from receiving gifts of more than $390. Since many of them brought guests, they had apparently received gifts worth more than $1,600. They had 30 days to give it back. And although we would all like to some times, you can’t give back a good time.
So they had 30 days to reimburse Wilson. If they didn’t pay him back in 30 days, they would have to recuse themselves from working on issues connected to him for a year.
Wilson has plenty of business in front of City Hall. The developer of The Mark also built the Park Loft project, and, of course, Symphony Towers.
And so, the scrambling began. On Aug. 13, most everyone — CCDC staffers, board members and the City Council crew — realized they would be prohibited from dealing with Wilson.
And out came the checkbooks to pay their part of the orgy of excess.
Ogling at go-go dancers. Those crazy guys. Whatever happened at the party, Peters’ two tickets ended up costing him $1,610, which he hurriedly sent to the Douglas Wilson Co. Faulconer also ponied up $1,610.
As a little aside, I did a quick search on Orbitz and found a deal that would get me three nights in Vegas, at the Bellagio, and airfare for two people over the weekend of Sept. 15 for only $8 more than that. There’s some good ogling to be done in that town.
Atkins’ staff did not know how much she had to reimburse Wilson, but her press secretary, Monica Pelaez, assured me she had paid it back — and on time.
Madaffer’s office did not return a message I left.
CCDC’s situation was a little more complicated.
“We are trying to get a handle on what the disqualification issue might be for certain of these staff and board members,” said Helen Peak, CCDC’s legal counsel. Peak, by the way, is also San Marcos’ city attorney — she is a partner in the firm Lounsbery Ferguson Altona & Peak. Apparently, although CCDC is a department of the city, it chooses to get advice from San Marcos’ city attorney as opposed to San Diego’s own.
I’m telling you, this story is classic San Diego.
Peak said that two CCDC board members had confirmed that they attended the party and, rather than pay back the entire cost of their share of it, they paid back only the amount above the $390 state gift limit. The rest will be disclosed as a gift to them from Wilson.
Peak also said that of the many CCDC staffers who went to Wilson’s party, at least two were not able to pay back their share of the costs in time. That means at least those two will be barred from dealing with Wilson for the next year.
“We are still in the process of getting a list together on who attended and what was reimbursed and when,” Peak said.
Wilson said he didn’t mean for any of this to happen. The company had concluded that it could offer the public officials the $65 rate because of the city’s “drop in” exemption in cases like this. That means that if a council member, for example, shows up at an invitation-only event and does not stay for the meal and entertainment, their share of the party is only the cost of the piece of cheese or two they wolf down.
“It was a bit of naivete, I guess,” Wilson told me. “We’re opening what we consider to be a landmark project with the quality similar to Symphony Towers.”
He said his company has deliberately held back from offering its “most unique” condos over the past couple of years because of the slump in downtown’s real estate market. The no-holds-barred event was meant to thank new buyers and celebrate the next year, which he said would see a stabilizing market.
That makes sense. It’s hard to really tell anyone who buys your downtown real estate much else these days. Downtown’s boosters went from “there is no housing market slump” to “the market has bottomed out and will stabilize” without a breath in between.
But back to the party.
Stacey Fulhorst at the city’s Ethics Commission likened the post-party confusion to an incident in 2002 when the Super Bowl came to town. Several elected officials attended a big bash hosted by the NFL that, to put on, they later found out cost much more than they had thought.
They were not punished as the Ethics Commission determined that they had no way of knowing the true cost. But they were barred from dealing with the NFL for the next year.
That is, they were barred from dealing with the NFL, she said, but not the local incarnation of that sports behemoth, the Chargers.
Mr. Wilson’s party is not a scandal, I suppose, and it’s nice to see elected officials scramble to do the right thing. I would have probably gotten so dizzy ogling everything, I’d have been in danger of falling in the pool.
And AstroTurf does not work as well as water to break stumbles like that.