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San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith took to the airwaves Wednesday to defend his position for denying our public records request on the Convention Center expansion tax increase.
Goldsmith told radio host Mike Slater that the information we’re seeking should be made public, and also said the situation could cause the entire Convention Center financing plan to fail. But he said the law required him not to release the number of votes controlled by the city’s largest hotelier as we’ve requested.
“I think the information should be made public, but we can’t,” Goldsmith said.
We’ve been fighting with Goldsmith’s office since mid-March to find out the number of votes held by that major hotelier, Host Hotels & Resorts. The election could increase visitor taxes by $1 billion to finance the expansion. Goldsmith is keeping Host’s votes secret because he argues making them public could reveal proprietary information about the company and put it at a competitive disadvantage. He issued a five-page legal opinion outlining why we’re not allowed to have Host’s votes.
On the radio, Goldsmith said it wasn’t his office, but the city’s outside legal counsel who set up the voting structure that made Host’s votes secret. He said disclosing the information would expose the city to a lawsuit, but he’d do it if a court ordered him to.
“I’d be happy to do it,” he said.
Goldsmith also said in the interview that the entire Convention Center financing plan, which calls for a vote of the city’s hoteliers and not the public, could be suspect because of the secrecy of the vote allocation. He called the hotelier vote “a little end around” on legal provisions that force regular hotel-room tax increases to go to public votes.
“I don’t want to prejudice the case, but I think the way this was structured using confidential information, a judge might take this into consideration into deciding whether this thing was legal in the first place, the way it was structured,” Goldsmith said.
This is the furthest Goldsmith has gone publicly to cast doubt on the legality of the Convention Center expansion plan. Previously, his office has simply said he’s not sure if the plan is legal because there’s no established precedent. The city plans to go to court assuming the hoteliers and the City Council approve the financing plan to get a judge to validate its legality. But the hotel vote has to happen first.
“I don’t want to campaign against it so I won’t say anything,” Goldsmith said. “If it fails, then our lives are a little bit easier.”
Goldsmith isn’t the only one who thinks the information he’s keeping secret should be public. Three City Council members and all four major mayoral candidates told us Wednesday they wanted it released.
Councilwoman Marti Emerald, Councilman David Alvarez and Councilman Carl DeMaio all said the city should reveal Host’s vote totals. DeMaio, who’s also running for mayor, added the caveat he’d support the public disclosure “if there’s any legal way to do so.”
DeMaio’s three opponents in the mayoral election all supported releasing Host’s vote totals. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said Host should do it voluntarily if it wasn’t legally required. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher said the city should release it unequivocally, as did Congressman Bob Filner.
“It’s ridiculous,” Filner said.
Councilwoman Sherri Lightner and Councilman Todd Gloria said they backed Goldsmith’s position. Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s chief of staff, Job Nelson, took a more nuanced view.
“The elected City Attorney has made a legal decision on the release of information,” Nelson said. “We do not pretend to have the expertise to speak to whether that opinion is solid or not.”
Mayor Jerry Sanders, Council President Tony Young and Councilman Kevin Faulconer couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
We might have a solution that gets the city out of its legal quandary.
The city is using a hotel’s room revenues and proximity to the Convention Center to calculate its votes in the election. It isn’t one hotel, one vote. There are almost 27 million votes in the election. By our best estimate, Host has at least 5.5 million of them. But that figure is incomplete, and Goldsmith contends revealing the actual vote allocation would allow the public to determine how much money a hotel made off its rooms. Goldsmith said that information, per city and state rules, is private.
But Host owns four hotels in San Diego. Two of them, the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the Marriott Marquis & Marina, are next to the Convention Center. Host also owns the Sheraton Harbor Island and a Marriott in Mission Valley.
We asked for the votes that Host controls in total, the sum of the votes it has by owning of all four hotels. We want to know how much sway the company has over the entire election, especially since Host and other hotels have used their secret electoral power as leverage on issues unrelated to the expansion. The tax hike needs a two-thirds vote to pass. If Host had enough votes, it alone could block the expansion.
If the city released Host’s votes in aggregate, there’s no way we could derive solely from that the room revenues for each of Host’s four hotels. And that’s the city’s stated reason for keeping the vote totals secret.
It would only tell us what we want to know: the company’s actual power in the election.
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 email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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