Score one for government transparency in San Diego.
Less than a week after a Voice of San Diego story revealed many of the city’s business improvement districts weren’t following California’s open government laws, San Diego’s City Council took a major step toward ensuring transparency and accountability of the districts last month, requiring them to more prominently post their public meetings and key information about their operations.
Business districts use public money to support the economic growth of small business communities, playing an increasingly prominent role in a city that’s cut back on many basic services. They’re public agencies that use public money. They organize special events like neighborhood block parties and maintain iconic neighborhood signs like those in Normal Heights and Hillcrest.
Our story found that the nonprofit organizations that run business districts did so without much city oversight, and many were out of compliance with state public records and open meetings laws.
The City Council moved to address that recently, voting to tighten existing requirements for the districts and also ensure that they post bylaws, meeting minutes and annual financial reports on their websites. The city will also post that information online.
Councilmen David Alvarez and Carl DeMaio pushed for the increase in oversight, saying they were concerned about the issues our story raised. They said the city needed to require more transparency and accountability from them.
“We support our BIDs but we need to make sure that they’re following the contracts that we’ve awarded them with public dollars,” DeMaio said.
Alvarez said he wants to see the business districts continue to be successful but in order to achieve that, “keeping everybody honest and responsible” is crucial.
The council also tightened rules governing the process business districts must follow when hiring contractors to sweep streets, do accounting or even run the districts themselves. Business districts now have to disclose all contractors performing work in excess of $5,000 on the city’s website as well as their own, along with a notation of the number of competitive bids received.
DeMaio pushed for the increased transparency in the competitive bidding process.
“This also allows city staff to know whether this transparency reform that we’re applying today is indeed being followed,” he said. “If you don’t get the material, then you know it’s not being posted.”
Last summer, the City Council approved a policy that allows business districts to more easily access public funds on a regular basis rather than go through a time-consuming reimbursement process. This action was meant to cut red tape and make it easier for districts to focus on small business promotion.
“The promise however was that with extra flexibility would come accountability,” DeMaio said. “Then, this comes.”
He was referring to a recent city audit that outlined problems in the Pacific Beach business district, Discover Pacific Beach, involving contracts that were not being competitively bid. The audit found Discover PB paid an accountant more than $5,000 without first seeking at least five bids.
Council members said more changes may come in the future as a result of the audit and the story.
Councilwoman Marti Emerald said the City Council should create consequences for business districts that don’t follow open government rules, a responsibility that will fall to the council’s new economic development committee.
“While BIDs may not be government entities, you are an arm of government and should be in full compliance with the public records act and the Brown Act,” she said.
Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who leads the committee, said she’d consider requiring open government law training for business district employees and board members. She said she’d like to see a system implemented that’s similar to the mandatory training required of community planning groups.
“If they’re not trained, they’re not permitted to participate,” Lightner said.
Sandy Coronilla is a freelance journalist and contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can contact her directly at email@example.com or 619.519.6069.