April 20 2011 10:06 AM

How taxpayer watchdog' Carl DeMaio uses your money

Carl DeMaio
"Instead of tackling wasteful spending," San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio tweeted Monday afternoon, "our City government is cutting vital services."

DeMaio was referring to Mayor Jerry Sanders' proposed budget that will drastically scale back hours at city libraries and recreation centers versus his own proposal that city workers take compensation cuts.

But when it comes to cutting wasteful spending, DeMaio might start with his own budget.

CityBeat examined City Council office budgets for the 2010 fiscal year (July 1, 2009, through June 30, 2010) and the current fiscal year. While DeMaio is budgeted for a smaller staff than other council offices—nine compared with 10 or 11, a staffing level he inherited from his predecessor, Brain Maienschein—and has pledged to not take a pension, San Diego's self-proclaimed "taxpayer watchdog" has, for the last two years, outspent his colleagues on things like postage, printed materials, technical services and office supplies.

Some examples of DeMaio's spending during the last two years:

• For his 2009 and 2011 "state of the district" addresses (he didn't hold one in 2010), DeMaio spent $1,680 to rent teleprompters. One of those rentals was for a pre-event run-through of the speech and cost $400.

• For his 2011 "state of the district" address, a member of DeMaio's staff spent $162.50 on fake plants from Michaels to decorate the stage.

• While it's not unusual for councilmembers to rent booths at community events in their districts, DeMaio, the first person to file paperwork to run for mayor in 2012, has spent $815 to rent booths at community events outside his district.

• As CityBeat reported in March, DeMaio signed a $9,900, one-year contract with the company Freedom Speaks to develop a smart-phone app that will allow residents to take geo-tagged photographs of potholes, graffiti and broken streetlights and send them to his office. The Mayor's office, meanwhile, was already planning to work with UCSD students to develop a low-cost or no-cost app that would integrate with the city's computer system and include additional features.

• In November, DeMaio spent a little more than $200 to rent a room in Golden Hall—the meeting center across from City Hall—and, receipts show, spent $218.40 at the City Café on breakfast items for three dozen attendees, including members of the conservative Lincoln Club, former Union-Tribune editorial page editor and KUSI director of news planning Bob Kittle and representatives of special-interest groups that have been DeMaio's political allies, like the Building Industry Association, Associated Builders and Contractors and the San Diego Restaurant Association. An expense report describes the meeting as a "discussion of city budget," but an attendee told CityBeat that the event was a preview of DeMaio's "Roadmap to Recovery"—his plan to fix the city's budget through outsourcing jobs and overhauling the city's retirement system.

The Roadmap and an addendum report looking at whether money can be saved by enrolling newly hired public-safety workers in a 401k plan have cost more than $50,000 in consultant and printing costs, paid for out of DeMaio's office budget. A March report by Sanders' Citizens Fiscal Sustainability Task Force praised the Roadmap as a "well researched and a well-thought out conceptual document," but "some of the ideas are supported by very thoughtful calculations while others appeared to contain only rough estimates." The task force report found that the recommendations laid out in the Roadmap would produce only about half the savings it claimed were possible in 2012.

In the last few months, DeMaio's presented the Roadmap to community groups and town councils throughout the city.

"What Carl's been doing is using his office, as many people will, to run for higher office," said Carl Luna, a professor of political science who teaches at San Diego Mesa College and the University of San Diego. "It's basically like a subsidized campaign."

DeMaio's office didn't respond to CityBeat's questions.

When DeMaio was sworn into office in 2008, he immediately issued a press release, pledging to "lead by example in promoting efficiency and transparency." He rejected an elected-official pension and auto allowance and proposed that each City Council office cut its budget beyond a 10-percent mid-year cut proposed by the mayor. According to city budget reports, however, that never happened.

Two-thirds of council-office budgets are made up of salaries, fringe benefits and fixed costs, like IT services. The remainder of the budget includes line-items over which a council member can exercise discretion—things like travel, printing, postage, attending conferences and purchasing office supplies. While DeMaio's office spends less on staffing and benefits—his overall budget for this fiscal year, $1,047,541, is the fourth-highest among the eight council offices—budget documents show that DeMaio's office spends anywhere from twice to 15 times as much on these kinds of discretionary expenditures than any other council office.

As long as he stays within his overall budget, that's OK.

"The mayor recommends an ‘allowance' for each office," said Rachel Laing, a spokesperson for Sanders, in an email, "and their spending just has to meet laws / [municipal] code for allowable public spending.

"But from within those parameters, the councilmembers get to choose their own spending priorities and what's ‘legitimate,'" Laing said, "knowing of course that they may have to answer to the public / voters on those priorities."

Don Mullen, who's currently chief of staff for Councilmember Marti Emerald and has worked for several council members since the '90s, said that before the city switched to an executive-mayor form of government in January 2006, someone from the City Manager's office would sit down with each council member's chief of staff and review the budget annually. Under the new governing system, he said, that doesn't happen.

It's difficult, too, for the public to get a sense of how their elected officials are spending money. Budget documents available on the city's website break things down into general categories and often aren't accurate. Former Councilmember Donna Frye, who was termed out in December, said she finally asked for a detailed line-by-line breakdown of her own budget from the city's chief operating officer, Jay Goldstone, and used that information to craft what she believed was an accurate budget—and also the smallest budget of her colleagues'—for fiscal year 2010.

"For the first time that I could remember, it was a budget based on real numbers instead of projections," she said.

Even with the smaller budget, Frye said, she was still able to allocate money to the City Clerk's office—which had its own budget cut—to help make government records more accessible.

Mullen said he's asked for the same breakdown. He said he's been reviewing expenses, looking for places to cut, like buying a year's worth of stationery for half price.

"It was all the stuff that was just sitting around, and they wanted to get rid of it," he said.

And, after CityBeat asked about a news-clipping service that Emerald's office subscribed to for roughly $60 a month—something that a former staffer signed up for and Mullen had only recently become aware of—he decided to cancel it. "It wasn't worthwhile," he said. "I couldn't justify the cost."

Write to kellyd@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

Amount City Councilmembers spent on postage and print services, July 1, 2009, through April 6, 2011



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