Photo illustration by John Lamb
Did Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith abandon ship on a TMD settlement?
The freedom of the city is not negotiable. We cannot negotiate with those who say, "What's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable."
—John F. Kennedy
Mention TMD to any plugged-in policy wonk in town, and the most likely response will be, "Yeah, what about the Tourism Marketing District?"
Spin Cycle, however, could make the argument that TMD actually stands for Thoroughbreds Making Decisions. You will never witness a more agreeable bunch of folks outside of a dictatorship-led hellhole of capitulation like North Korea.
At least the meeting venues it selects are swanky. For the TMD's most recent board meeting the location chosen was The Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter just a stoner's throw from aromatic Horton Plaza.
A smattering of hotel types, City Hall reps and press dotted some of the comfy beige audience chairs within the beige walls of the hotel's Harbor Room. (Spin Cycle has no idea why the name, since the railings of an outdoor terrace blocked views from the room.) In the next-door Coronado Room, board members hunkered down in closed session well after the appointed starting time for the day's public hearings.
Spin should note the term "public hearings" might be considered a bit of a misnomer for the average layperson, since the meetings move along at such greased-lightning speed without the use of microphones that it's a marvel the public can follow along, let alone feel a part of the action.
But no matter—attendance is typically so low that the board makes it a habit to take the time at the outset for everyone in the room to introduce themselves, including audience members. There are no stealth visitors at a TMD board meeting.
Agendas for meetings are typically scant in detail and rarely come with backup materials until the day of the meeting, laid out in stacks on a table. Monday's materials were limited to a few head-scratching spreadsheets purported to show budget amendments and two pages of brief minutes from a previous gathering.
When the board members finally emerged from next door and shuffled into the public den, the face of TMD's chairman, hotelier Bill Evans, was priceless in its puzzlement as his eyes caught a glimpse of one audience member: thorn-in-the-TMD-side activist attorney Cory Briggs.
Briggs, representing San Diegans for Open Government, is ensconced in a fever-pitch battle with the city over the legality of the TMD's existence, and has strung together a series of courtroom wins to the point where most sane people wonder not whether the TMD will collapse on itself, but when.
Things got so weird last month that Briggs held a press conference to announce a settlement in the proceedings after word leaked to the press—some believe by Evans himself—of a pending deal, needing only Mayor Kevin Faulconer's blessing. Evans later released a statement, claiming the TMD board had taken no such action but welcomed continued "productive conversations" with Briggs.
At Monday's hearing, board members voted unanimously to boost its fiscal year budgeting for legal services by $162,000, suggesting preparation for ongoing legal wars. "We are scheduled in court in August," Evans wrote Spin, later. "I guess we will see what the judge has to say on the issue."
The board also agreed to whip through an operating agreement amendment within three weeks—tied to its scheduled budget hearing before the City Council in late May—that will seemingly cost the district revenue. The plan, in essence, is to return to an earlier time when only lodging establishments with 70 or more rooms were assessed a 2 percent surcharge on hotel rooms to promote tourism. In 2012, the council approved a change assessing all lodging businesses, just at a reduced rate of 0.55 percent for those with fewer than 30 rooms, and 2 percent for those with 30 or more.
Why the change was necessary never really emerged from the brief board discussion. Evans later declined to address the reasons publicly. Could it be that some of Briggs' clients include smaller lodging establishments, thereby putting at risk the standing of his ongoing legal battle? Evans wouldn't say.
"Their plan is more transparent than crystal," Briggs said. "They're launching a missile to kill a mouse."
There have been rumors that the AirBnB industry would like a seat at the TMD table, so perhaps it has something to do with that. Again, Evans remained publicly silent.
Briggs was unconvinced. "If AirBnB were the real problem, they'd simply fix the voting procedures for board members by cleaning up their corporate bylaws," he argued. "Opening up the entire TMD structure tells you that this ruse is actually just litigation strategy."
And thus, you get a taste of the loggerhead position this city seemingly embraces at every turn.
If only there were a way to break the stubborn public silence on the good stuff...
As Spin's forehead crashed on the coffee table back at home, there was a commotion on the balcony.
"What the hell with these invisible screen doors, guy?" came the familiar voice of longstanding Spin Cycle character Magic Budget Fairy, its feelers quite bent from the impact.
"Hey Budget Fairy. To what do I owe this visit? And how do you know where I live?" Spin asked.
"First question: You seemed perplexed. Second question: None of your business," Fairy said, shaking the cobwebs free. "The mayor, obviously pleased with my work on next year's budget, sent me in to see if I could fix this stupid TMD snit."
"It's a pretty big snit, considering the TMD has to sit on nearly $20 million in tourist taxes it may have to return if it loses in court."
"Choose whatever word you want," extorted Fairy. "It sure beats searching sofa cushions to pay for anti-homeless 'rock gardens.' How'd you like that turn of phrase I came up with?"
"Not so much. Seemed a bit, um, cold?"
"Oh, you heart bleeders! Spruce up a place, and what does it get you? Grief!" Magic Budget Fairy growled. "But enough of this chatter. Let's clear the boulders about TMD and this guy Briggs. You know the mayor is not a fan?"
"That would be an understatement, yes."
"Well then, what's not to figure out?" Fairy seemed to forget it is on the inside and Spin is out in the rock garden. "The TMD had a settlement with Briggs until it was waved under the nose of City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, who likes Briggs even less than the mayor. Goldsmith hit the roof, and that was that. Funny, considering he'd told both sides to resolve this privately."
Fairy proceeded to describe a draft interim ordinance hammered out to ensure tourism-marketing money continued to flow while a legally defensible new TMD was formulated.
"But Goldsmith said there was no such thing," Spin said, head spinning.
Irked, Fairy pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and tossed it. Written by a TMD board member in early April, it read: "I think if we present a compelling case that this ordinance works, this will ultimately be driven by the mayor's office—BTW, while there was no public announcement yesterday, you should know that no TMD board members objected to the settlement terms. That is huge. The strong sentiment of our board was to have the city bless the deal in advance of an announcement."
Fairy smiled, not at all blown away that legal matters appear to remain unsolved because the boys can't play nice in the sandbox.