San Diego may be the eighth largest city in the U.S., but many still refer to it as a small town. While small towns have many positive attributes, they also have one glaring negative — a vulnerability to self-serving individuals commandeering control of the civic landscape for their personal interests. This is less likely to occur in big cities because there is a multitude of powerful interests competing with each other for control, influence and new ideas. These competing interests are a natural system of checks and balances, preventing any one interest from gaining the upper hand. San Diego, unfortunately, has not outgrown its small town vulnerability — and the hotelier cabal has indeed seized the upper hand.

The hotelier cabal is what stands between San Diego being what it is, and San Diego being the world-class city it should have been long ago. As Scott Lewis observed in Voice of San Diego in 2011, “No group has recognized as clearly as hoteliers have that they must build their own small government. … We’ve allowed them to create their own tax.” In 2004, two separate propositions to raise the transient occupancy tax failed. As such, in 2008 a Tourism Marketing District assessment tax was created by the hoteliers in order to avoid having another public vote, and the resultant hotelier-controlled, taxpayer pot of money now stands at $30 million per year. With these monies, the hoteliers have amassed an immense base of power and influence in a relatively short period of time.

Astonishingly, a small clique of these room-rental business owners in San Diego have successfully sold our elected leaders on the notion that hoteliers alone are the “authority” on tourism, as well as on a broad array of other civic concerns — most of which are outside their business experience and skillsets. These hoteliers now control a wide swath of San Diego’s civic landscape — they rule the TMD monies and thus our tourism industry. They decide how our city will be marketed; what our city’s image and brand will be (or not be); how to expand our Convention Center and how it will be funded; who will handle the sales and marketing of the Convention Center; what the vision and game plan for the Balboa Park 2015 centennial celebration will be and who will manage it; what roles the San Diego Film Commission and San Diego Sports Commission will play in our community; what civic ideas and visions are worthy or not; and on and on. Likewise in 2011, the hoteliers opposed a multipurpose-use facility proposed by the Chargers for the expanded Convention Center. The civic overreach achieved by a handful of men who operate overnight room-rental businesses is breathtaking. Their results, however, are not.

San Diego has many important industries and interests — a world-class life science cluster, wireless technology and innovation industries, our brave Navy and Marine personnel who defend American life, military defense industry, professional sports teams, green and blue economies, higher education institutions and so on. Do any of these interests even remotely have their hands in so many things? Absolutely not.

Hoteliers do have an important role in tourism and should be at the table. However, they should not be ruling the table as they do today. San Diego’s “free media” is our road back to equilibrium — Voice of San Diego, NBC 7 San Diego, KPBS, CityBeat, San Diego Reader, KUSI, et al. More than ever, we need these entities to dig, map out the players and organizations involved, and report the truth of how one-sided and controlled our city’s civic affairs have become.

San Diegans want tourism, and we also want our hotels to thrive. As such, we need the hoteliers to get back to what they are good at (running hotels) and get out of what they are not good at (managing our civic landscape). Here are some examples of what happens when hoteliers operate outside their areas of strength.

The stakes are profound San Diego — will we remain a small town controlled by a few on-high? Or will we cast aside the hotelier cabal and be the world-class city we deserve to be?

George Mullen is spearheading the civic effort to bring a world-class image to San Diego as the City of Life (Ciudad de Vida). He is an artist, writer and occasional economist with in downtown San Diego. He is a native and welcomes feedback at

Want to spark discussion? Start a conversation by submitting a commentary at Fix San Diego.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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