Hotelier Bill Evans stands on the 11th floor of his Catamaran Hotel, where you can catch a faint view of the Convention Center with high-powered binoculars. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Summary

Hotelier Bill Evans' lawsuit against local unions is still alive, money is pouring into the AD-80 special election and Rick Gentry is out at the Housing Commission.

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Hotelier Bill Evans raised eyebrows in 2019 when his family business filed a lawsuit alleging that local labor leaders were holding public lease agreements hostage. In effect, he argued, certain unions were threatening the financial viability of non-unionized hotels and development projects by raising “sham” environmental and land use concerns. 

Representatives for Unite HERE Local 30 and the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council pushed back. They said their concerns were legitimate and made on behalf of the public and working-class people. 

A federal judge dismissed the case before it got off the ground, ruling that the local unions appeared to be engaging in constitutionally protected speech. What Evans had portrayed as a conspiracy was considered the normal workings of politics in a democratic society. 

We reported at the time that the case was dead. Turns out it’s not. 

The court gave Evans Hotels and its affiliates permission to file a new complaint, and last August a new judge allowed some of the claims to proceed. 

SeaWorld, for instance, had been working with Evans in 2018 to develop, own and operate a new hotel on land that the theme park leases from the city. But, according to the lawsuit, SeaWorld backed out of a deal — eating millions of dollars in fees and expenses — after learning that the unions were prepared to make trouble for future roller coaster rides at the state level if Evans didn’t first agree to two things. 

For one, Evans was seeking to expand the Bahia Resort on Mission Bay, and the labor leaders wanted him to stay neutral in the face of any unionizing efforts at the hotel. Secondly, they wanted him to agree to hire unionized workers on the construction side. Evans accused labor leaders of leaning on their allies at City Hall to block his project and offering to put the pin back in the grenade if he conceded. 

In the hotelier’s view, SeaWorld and the San Diego City Council were pressure points in a larger campaign. He’s arguing that those actions were illegal because they constituted a “secondary boycott” that was aimed at him but through other parties. (It’s worth noting that this practice used to be a normal and popular means of solidarity — a way of leveraging demands on one business by targeting another — until Congress stepped in.) 

Again, the unions disagree with Evans’s characterization. In a statement, an attorney for Unite HERE called the lawsuit “meritless” and “an illegitimate attempt to silence Local 30 from participating in the political process and from opposing the Bahia Hotel’s expansion onto public land.” Attorneys for the Building Trades didn’t respond to a request for comment.

New court filings from Evans also point to an ongoing dispute between the labor groups and San Diego State University as evidence that the unions are engaging in anticompetitive behavior. His lawyers were expected to submit a fourth complaint by Friday. 

Even the judge seems impatient with the scope and timeline of this case. 

“Plaintiffs are now on the fourth iteration of their complaint in a case that has been pending for over three years,” she recently wrote. “Thus, a strong showing must be made for why any claims can survive as well as why they were not brought within the past three years of this case’s pendency.”

Who’s Got the Money in AD-80 Special

Two former allies on the San Diego City Council are facing off to replace former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez in the state Assembly, and it appears both will have enough financial heft behind them to run a winning campaign.

The first campaign finance summaries in the April 5 special election posted this week, with former Councilwoman Georgette Gomez outraising former Councilman David Alvarez, and giving her a roughly $60,000 advantage in available money with just over a month until Election Day.

We always present these fundraising numbers by accounting for any debt that campaigns have – which sometimes reveals campaigns that aren’t in as strong a financial position as they appear to be at first blush – but neither Gomez nor Alvarez owe much money right now. Alvarez, though, has spent almost twice as much as Gomez so far, giving her the cash-on-hand advantage.

One observation on Alvarez’s fundraising, though: Politics Report readers might remember that Alvarez, on his way out of the City Council, was at one point exploring a run for County Supervisor. That was in 2018, and he had a campaign account open for the race with $92,686 in it. He decided against that run well before any campaign began, though, and eventually opened an account for a 2024 supervisor run.

That account has now transferred nearly $53,000 into his current Assembly race.

Gomez releases an internal poll: Gomez’s campaign this week released internal polling that says she’s got an early lead in the race, with 40 percent of likely special election voters favoring her and Alvarez coming in with 26 percent support, behind Republican candidate Lincoln Pickard’s 27 percent.

If that held, Alvarez wouldn’t proceed to the June runoff, but those results are of course before serious campaign spending has ramped up or voters have especially tuned in to the race.

Under Mounting Pressure, Gentry Bounced

San Diego Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry abruptly resigned Tuesday, leaving a vacancy atop an agency that’s been clouded by scandal for nearly a year.

Gentry departed – through a resignation letter that’s as abrupt as they come, and that seems to have caught officials throughout City Hall off guard – just as the City Council was beginning its official attempt to reform the agency that he led for 14 years.

The Council’s reform agenda included a list of possible subjects – from minor ones like who could be included in closed-session meetings with legal counsel, to major ones like whether the agency should continue to lead the city’s homeless-services efforts.

Another reform idea wasn’t directly related to the issues plagued the agency in 2021, but was provocative on its own, asking whether it was appropriate for the Commission to consider awarding city housing funds to a nonprofit affordable housing developer controlled by the agency that was competing for the funds against other independent nonprofit developers.

Now, while it decides which of those ideas to pursue, the City Council will also have to decide what it wants in a new leader.

Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said Tuesday the Council, in its role as the Housing Authority, would eventually lead the effort to replace Gentry.

“I look forward to the Housing Authority leading a robust and transparent national search for the future leader of the Commission who will play a critical role in our response to San Diego’s challenges of housing and homelessness,” he said. Mayor Todd Gloria in a statement said he looked forward to working with the Council to direct the agency going forward.

Councilman Chris Cate, who is on the committee tasked with reforming the agency, said he still needs to talk to Elo-Rivera about how the search process will work.

“Whomever is selected to take on the role, I think there are some fundamental changes that need to be discussed and implemented for the Housing Commission to ensure the next person can be successful,” he said.

Elo-Rivera said he texted Gentry this week, commending him for the number of people who had roofs over their head because of the work he did over the years.

“There’s definitely an assumption that as soon as reform is discussed, that means we’re gunning for someone, and that was not the case,” he said.

He said he’d like the replacement search to involve the public, much like the city’s current search for a new independent budget analyst.

Lisa Halverstadt contributed reporting to this story.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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1 Comment

  1. Brigette Browning, president of Unite Here, was named in the Evans Hotels lawsuit, was selected by Councilmember Campbell to negotiate in Campbell’s short term rentals regulations. The negotiations led to a MOU that would become the foundation for the eventual STR regulations passed by the City Council. Evans has three hotels, two that are in proximity to Mission Beach. In the MOU, it established that one percent of all of the housing units would be set aside for STR licenses, except for Mission Beach, where the percent of housing units is thirty percent. While thirty percent sounds astounding, it gets worse. If you divide the projected total number of STRs licenses in MB at 1081, this results in a STR density of 1820 STR per square mile. If you apply this same density across the City, the result would be 677,040 STRs. This number only points out how ludicrous and destructive the 30 percent is in the first place. Historically, Mission Beach has had Sumer winter rentals, so ninety days of the year, with an average number of STRs of about 450. The 1081 STR licenses year around would be 9.6 times more than our historical value. Ms. Browning agreed 100 percent to the AirBnB established 30 percent in Mission Beach, a number which directly impacts Evans Hotels. She should have never been involved in determining the CAP for Mission Beach. This was a sham.

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