Hundreds of consultants hired by the city of San Diego are currently in violation of the city's own conflict-of-interest laws, according to a memo released by the city's Ethics Commission in February. Four months after that memo was issued, some city staff are struggling to help consultants comply with those laws while other officials are unaware of the problem.
Under the city's conflict-of-interest codes, consultants hired by city departments and agencies are required to regularly file statements of economic interest (SEIs), which disclose their investments, income, gifts and real estate interests stemming from business conducted in San Diego. Only consultants who submit a letter detailing why the law doesn't apply to them are exempt from the filing requirement.
The California Political Reform Act, a state law regulating the way governments do business, and many of the contracts used at City Hall also require similar filings.
Every year the city employs hundreds of consultants, including outside attorneys, to assist city staff with various tasks. However, the City Clerk's office, which maintains the consultant filings and letters, receives only a relative handful of filings or letters from consultants each year.
Stacey Fulhorst, the executive director of the Ethics Commission, who wrote the memo after receiving a complaint from citizen watchdog Mel Shapiro, said the conflict-of-interest laws are a way of making sure that the people hired to serve the city's interest aren't, at the same time, serving their own.
"The whole purpose... is for the public to see what your economic interests are and for the public then to be able to raise issues if there is a perceived conflict," Fulhorst told CityBeat.
Failure to file an SEI or letter is a potential violation of the local conflict-of-interest law and could result in fines or sanctions imposed by the Ethics Commission, city attorney or the State's Fair Political Practices Commission. However, because it's up to the city department that hires the consultant to determine if they need to file, Fulhorst said it's difficult to take action against those who haven't been notified of their responsibility.
Fulhorst recommended that departments review all of the consultants they've hired in the past four years to ensure that they are in compliance with the law.
But the response to her February memo has varied dramatically.
Earlier this month, the Centre City Development Corporation, which manages redevelopment efforts downtown, notified Fulhorst that it had identified more than 100 consultants who need to file SEIs.
Yet there hasn't been a stampede to comply at City Hall.
Bonnie Stone, who oversees SEI filings in the City Clerk's office, reported only a few responses from internal city departments since Fulhorst issued her memo.
As of press time, a spokesperson in the mayor's office wasn't sure what steps various departments were taking to comply and didn't know how many consultants the city currently employs.
Fulhorst says she's heard that the process has slowed as city staff have sought legal advice regarding which consultants need to file.
"I have heard from some departments that they are having some difficulty in terms of delay because they are not getting a response from the City Attorney's office," she said.
Contacted last week, City Attorney Mike Aguirre-who was never sent Fulhorst's memo-was unaware of the consultant issue. Aguirre called back Monday and said lawyers from his office are working to formulate a legal opinion and guidelines to help departments determine which consultants need to file SEIs.
"The city has not properly addressed this issue for a long time," Aguirre said. "The city certainly hasn't followed its own rules."