City Attorney Mara Elliott obliquely accused Council President Sean Elo-Rivera of sexism Monday after he criticized her for announcing a proposed settlement she had reached before informing the City Council.
The Council approved the settlement anyway, ending the city’s lawsuit against a broker who bought 40,000 shares in the corporate owner of a Mission Valley hotel, then helped the San Diego Housing Commission buy the hotel from the company for $67 million.
Jim Neil, the broker, who worked with Kidder Matthews, will pay the city roughly $1 million per the settlement, covering commissions he collected for helping the city buy the Mission Valley hotel and another in Kearny Mesa that exceeded what his contract said was the maximum commission per hotel. It also includes the city’s legal expenses associated with the lawsuit. The settlement bars Neil from working with the city again, and Kidder Matthews is barred from doing so for two years.
Before the vote, though, Elo-Rivera said he hoped the city attorney’s office in the future would tell the Council of any settlement it agrees to before issuing a press release, as Elliott’s office did last month when it finalized a deal with Neil. Councilman Chris Cate voiced similar concerns to Voice of San Diego at the time.
Elliott said it sounded like she was being silenced, and that she is being treated differently than other city attorneys because she is a woman.
“I find this statement you made puzzling,” she said, after Elo-Rivera said that “announcing a settlement prior to it being decided upon puts us in a tough spot,” and hoped communications would be handled differently in the future.
“What I’m hearing you say is that I can’t speak to the public without permission from the City Council,” Elliott said. “And I don’t agree with that position at all. I’ve always been very measured in when I talk to the public, I am always very inclusive of this Council, but I find that the rules that have been applied to me have been very different than any of my predecessors. And I’ll note for the record, I’m the first woman to hold this position. And if I want to say something, I’m going to say something. If there is a privilege that I have to respect, I will speak with the council, but the public expects to hear from me, and I will not be silenced.”
Elo-Rivera responded that he did not say or imply that anyone was forbidden from speaking.
“I know that I am not the only one on this council who was surprised by the announcement,” he said, and drew a distinction between approving a direction for settlement negotiations, as the Council had done in closed session, and knowing that the city attorney’s office and Neil had come to a final agreement. “I know that I was not the only one who felt a bit flat footed in that moment. All of us as elected officials – all of us as, as members of society – have the right to speak our mind, to do our jobs, to the best of our ability. I also think that it’s important to have a more clear understanding of, of what is happening and when.”
Elliott then requested a chance to respond, briefly rejecting his claim that other Council members should be heard from first.
“I’d be delighted to wait, thank you,” Elliott said.
While she waited, the rest of the Council weighed in. Cate said his issue was that the Council had just been held to a different standard on a separate issue about talking publicly about a settlement before it was agreed to. Councilwoman Marni Von Wilpert, a former deputy city attorney, said nothing struck her as surprising or unusual about the city attorney announcing a settlement before informing the Council.
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe said she too was surprised and irritated to read about it in the press because she wished she had been better prepared to discuss issues of public interest by receiving background briefings.
The dispute over proper roles and processes is one that’s been playing out since the alleged act of public corruption on the hotel purchases came to light in the first place.
Elliott’s office was uninvolved in the issue, until members of the Housing Commission’s board of directors expressed that they were uncomfortable with how it was being handled. The Housing Commission asked to get the City Council and city attorney’s office involved, which both resulted in Elliott bringing the lawsuit and in spearheading a reform process of the relationship between the Housing Commission and the city, which led to the departure of former Housing Commission CEO Rick Gentry.
Continuing that trend, LaCava, during his comments, criticized board members for the Housing Commission for comments they made after the board approved the Neil settlement. Housing Commissioner Ryan Clumpner and Mitch Mitchell, the board chair, expressed frustration that they still had unanswered questions about the price the Housing Commission paid for the hotel, and the process that went into appraising it. The appraisal of the Mission Valley hotel determined the property’s value prior to the pandemic, before travel restrictions rocked the hospitality industry and made the properties viable targets of acquisition in the first place. The other hotel, which Neil had no investment in, did not have a backdated appraisal.
LaCava said any issues they might have with the appraisal had nothing to do with the lawsuit.
“What I got really irritated about was the housing commissioners supporting this, and then raising issues about ‘Why didn’t we talk about the purchase price of the hotels?’” LaCava said. “That wasn’t part of the negotiation, or what we asked the city attorney to get involved with. The commissioners have the authority to investigate and to audit that purchase acquisition. What are they waiting for? They’ve got a problem, let them get on with that work.
“I don’t like these little things floating around in the media that makes it sound like we don’t know what we’re doing,” he said. “I’m comfortable with that purchase price back in the day. I’m comfortable with this settlement agreement. Brilliant work.”
Elliott then said she was under no obligation to bring the settlement back in the first place – she did so as a courtesy, she said, and had the authority to approve it unilaterally. Nonetheless, she said she viewed announcing the settlement prior to the Council ratifying it as no different than Mayor Todd Gloria announcing his pick to redevelop the Sports Arena prior to the Council voting to approve his selection.
“I feel that in this position, the voters have created a position that allows me to communicate with them,” she said. “And I find it very difficult to be required to ask for permission from another branch of government that the voters have also defined.”