Nov. 6 2013 09:31 AM

San Diego mayor's race turns into a release-a-thon

Transparent Kevin
Photo illustratin by John R. Lamb

"There's no sense talking about priorities. Priorities reveal themselves. We're all transparent against the face of the clock."

—Eric Zorn

Let's get this out of the way first: We'd all love for our government leaders to be open, forthcoming and honest about their sausage-making skills in the messy world of politics. Unfortunately, you're more likely to see two shooting stars collide mid-air before the true nature of governance is revealed.

That said, it does strike some as odd that with less than two weeks remaining before the Nov. 19 primary election—most likely Round 1 in determining San Diego's next mayor—the focus for one candidate seems tied to the whereabouts of another candidate's college records.

Last week, City Councilmember and mayor-wannabe Kevin Faulconer stood outside City Hall before a bevy of cameras (in this case, two, with possibly one from the campaign) and a pittance of reporters to unveil his five-point "Transparency First" plan, which was heavy on pillowy platitudes and light on how a cash-strapped city gets to the point where San Diegans actually witness, as Faulconer put it, "complete transparency from their elected officials."

"There should be nothing secret about the people's business," the apparent front-runner in the race told the small gathering, interrupted once when a gentleman walked by and shouted, "No booze ban!" 

But being transparent is a lot tougher than calling for it, and that's where this story gets a bit mushy.

Prior to last week's presser, the Faulconer camp issued a one-page release titled "Kevin Faulconer's PR Clients." As readers might recall, Spin recently attempted to dig a bit deeper—with only minor success—into Faulconer's professional career before he joined the San Diego City Council in January 2006.

Although at the time, a Faulconer spokesperson said the council member had nothing to hide, efforts to piece together his pre-council life was, to say the least, a challenge.

The one-page release confirmed the bulk of what Spin could glean from record searches and what little the campaign was providing. Let's just say that a wisdom-tooth extraction would have been easier.

The release reiterated that Faulconer's three main clients during his near-10-year employ at Nelson Communications Group (and later NCG Porter Novelli when the big firm purchased Nelson) were Sharp HealthCare when it was expanding Grossmont Hospital, the Associated Students of San Diego State University for expanded sports facilities (the only time Faulconer registered as a lobbyist) and the Convention Center expansion push in the late 1990s, which resulted in a center that nearly doubled in size.

But the release also expanded on those clients. It said Faulconer also "provided PR support" for Porter Novelli clients Francis W. Parker School, SeaWorld and the Port of San Diego.

As far as any additional details, the release said, "Kevin would encourage the company to release any client-related information upon request."

Spin is still waiting to hear back from Porter Novelli, but what are the odds that a private company would release any information about a former employee, even at that employee's urging? Spin's guess is right around zero.

Meanwhile, Spin attempted to get more details about prior employment from Camp Kevin, but, sadly, the memories of that work seem to be fading fast. As for dates, campaign spokesperson Tony Manolatos said Faulconer recalls working for the Port District "around 1997-99, but he's not certain."

Regarding the SeaWorld client, which he said was specifically the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, Manolatos said Faulconer "doesn't remember that, either." Hubbs President and CEO Don Kent also offered no specific recollection of Faulconer's work product.

In Spin's way of thinking, this is troubling for a couple of reasons: First, we're talking the late 1990s and early 2000s here, not some potentially hazy college era. And, second, these are not relationships that went unquestioned in previous campaigns.

Mailers from Faulconer's earlier council races noted Porter Novelli's relationships with large, influential local entities, including SeaWorld and its owner Anheuser-Busch, the port and SDG&E. One San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council mailer from the early 2000s suggested that the firm represented "the most rapacious special interests in California."

At the time, Faulconer vehemently denied the insinuation and rejected a contention that he supported breaking the coastal 30-foot height limit for a proposed hotel on the SeaWorld leasehold.

Records are at best shaky from that period. Minutes from Mission Bay Park Committee meetings from the late '90s have long since been destroyed. Other records, such as port contracts, only hint at vague job descriptions.

Memories of the players back then seem either nonexistent or intentionally forgotten.

But Bob Ottilie, who served with Faulconer on the Mission Bay Park Committee and supports him in the mayor's race, said he'd never seen a volunteer take on as much responsibility as Faulconer did in the long push to get park revenues dedicated to park improvements.

That was the demand of the California Coastal Commission when it approved the rollercoaster ride for SeaWorld, Ottilie said, and the city simply kept offering no plan, except, he said, "just keep asking the council for money and hope some day the council will give us money."

So, it seems there's some good and some unknown about Faulconer's past, which gets us back to calls for transparency.

"It reminds me of the primary in 2012," said Carl Luna, the Mesa College political-science professor and longtime local political-behavior observer. "Calls for all sorts of information, including tax returns. In the end, I think what campaigns are doing is trolling for anything to use against their opponents."

If a candidate agrees, it likely opens the door for endlessly more requests, which is basically the argument Camp Nathan Fletcher is using to refuse releasing his college transcripts, wondering tongue-incheek if dental records are next.

"What you wind up with is less a vigorous discussion of the issues facing San Diego and more a vanity race," Luna said.

What candidates might consider in the future is simply releasing this information at the outset. Open up your life. Make it easily accessible. Reporters will dig if you don't, but if you take that hobby away from them— voila!—they might just have to dwell on actual issues.

Crazy, Spin knows.

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