One of the perennial problems of government is getting political leaders like you to listen–really listen–to what we average voters and taxpayers have to say about how you are governing. You claim to be interested in what we have to say, but that interest usually materializes and peaks during the heat of election season and quickly wanes once the votes have been counted. We do not have the resources to hire lobbyists, to wine and dine you, or to make extravagant contributions to your campaigns. Even worse, when we dare to criticize you, your preference is to attack the messenger rather than confront the message. A recent press release by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith exemplifies the problem. But first, some context.
As members of the board of San Diegans for Open Government, we have hired attorney Cory Briggs to address numerous concerns we have about local government. For example, we hired him to challenge San Diego’s failure to properly notify residents about development in their communities. We hired him to recover millions of taxpayer dollars spent on local school district construction contracts after it was revealed that those contracts were procured by bribes but the district attorney failed to seek restitution for taxpayers. We hired him to make sure that your maintenance of drainage channels complied with state environmental laws. We hired him to challenge the imposition of more than $1 billion in new taxes to finance the Convention Center expansion and another $1 billion for hotel advertising–both without approval from registered voters. We hired him to get back public park space after those of you on the City Council unanimously voted to give that property to Sunroad for free. More recently we hired him to challenge taxes being levied on landowners in nearly 60 San Diego neighborhoods without a single registered voter ever going to the polls to approve the taxes. This last case we lost in the trial court before being allowed to put on any evidence, so now we will go to the appellate court. This is where Mr. Goldsmith comes in.
Within a couple hours of the ruling, Mr. Goldsmith’s office issued a press release stating that “”Mr. Brigg’s [sic] ‘client’ is an organization he calls San Diegans for Open Government or ‘SDOG.’” The quotation marks around “client” were purposeful on his part because he wants to suggest that Mr. Briggs is the only person in San Diego who disagrees with what you politicians are doing on issues like raising taxes without voter approval–or more to the point, that SanDOG exists only in the mind of Mr. Briggs. Your planning director made a similar comment last year about Mr. Briggs when he challenged the Convention Center’s expansion before the Coastal Commission (something that VoiceofSanDiego.org fact-checked and found to be false at http://www.nbcsandiego.com/video/#!/on-air/as-seen-on/SD-Fact-Check–Convention-Center-Expansion-Opposition/228420271). We find Mr. Goldsmith’s comments (and the planning director’s comments) highly offensive because they exemplify your dismissive attitude when confronted with unpleasant messages from the public.
Mr. Briggs does have a client. Some of you knew SanDOG’s founder, the late Ian Trowbridge, and were on the dais when he would appear with Mr. Briggs to express SanDOG’s concerns. We are simply carrying on the work that Mr. Trowbridge started. What takes Mr. Goldsmith’s press release from dismissive to childish is that he knows perfectly well that Mr. Briggs still has a client, that the client continues to have a board of directors, that we are on the board, and that we tell Mr. Briggs what to do and not vice-versa. On multiple occasions one of SanDOG’s board members or regular members has had to submit evidence in court to prove that the organization has standing to sue. SanDOG has never failed to prove standing. Mr. Goldsmith, on the other hand, has lost every time he has argued that SanDOG does not have standing.
We are not writing to defend Mr. Briggs against petty personal attacks; we’re confident he can take it. We are writing because Mr. Goldsmith’s behavior is symptomatic of what’s wrong with our city government. Those of us who cannot afford to “play ball” on the field of professional politics may be allowed to speak at public meetings or submit letters expressing our concerns. But when we do, you–especially those of you on the City Council–are neither listening nor reading nor, quite frankly, interested. (If you doubt the last sentence, please consider the recent Balboa Park Centennial fiasco: an outgoing mayor’s staff would soon be in need of new work and ended up landing cushy jobs planning an international event they had no experience with, at a windfall of more than $20,000 per month for them and a price tag of more than $2 million for the taxpayers. All of that happened right under your noses, right in front of your eyes, and with residents crying foul at an ever-increasing crescendo.)
SanDOG was set up to level the playing field–to watch out for the average taxpayer, the average voter, the average member of the public–and keep you politicians honest. SanDOG’s board and regular members receive no compensation for any of the work that’s done; we operate entirely on the kindness of like-minded volunteers. Yet members have had to endure threats and retaliation on account of their activities in trying to clean up local government. That is why SanDOG carefully guards its membership list and does not disclose any member’s identity without permission or a court’s confidentiality order.
Our strategy is to file lawsuits whenever we believe that the law is on our side, that the problem is significant, and most importantly that you are not doing enough (if anything) to fix it. We know that we are not going to win every case. But winning isn’t the only thing that matters. Operating in the political realm, you do not have to answer the public’s questions or even tell the truth. We are told what you want us to hear and that’s it. In court, however, you must answer the tough questions and do so truthfully, and what you have done is evaluated by someone who’s neutral and objective. Even in the few cases SanDOG has lost, along the way what you were really doing has always come to light. If losing a few lawsuits is the price SanDOG must pay to shine the light on what you are doing, as opposed to what you’re saying, then so be it.
Mr. Briggs has been retained by SanDOG’s board to act as the organization’s attorney. The organization never sues to recover money for itself and has never received a single penny from any lawsuit. It asks the court to right your wrongs, nothing more; again, it has never sought or received a single penny for itself in any lawsuit. If SanDOG succeeds and the court believes that the success is substantial and widely beneficial, the court will order the city to pay the attorney fees and court costs. Yes, that money goes to Mr. Briggs. But remember: There is no guarantee that he will get paid–the judge must believe it is justified–and even when he does get paid it is not until after the case is over. He takes a considerable risk in defending average voters and taxpayers against bad government decisions; meanwhile, you and your attorneys are being paid regularly throughout the process, win or lose. And most importantly, he always tells you that you’re going to be sued and why before the lawsuit’s filed. You’re the ones who choose not to listen.
Last week SanDOG filed a lawsuit to stop you from borrowing $130 million for infrastructure without voter approval, just as we did in 2012 when you planned to borrow millions of dollars to build a new parking structure in Balboa Park. We think that the City Charter and other laws make your plans illegal. We know Mr. Goldsmith is telling you that what you’re doing has received a ringing endorsement from the courts. Undoubtedly that is what you want to hear, and time will tell whether Mr. Goldsmith or Mr. Briggs is reading the law correctly; if you go forward with the bonds while the lawsuits are pending and it turns out that Mr. Goldsmith was wrong, expect a knock on the door from the SEC because your bond disclosures contain material falsities. At this point, what we do know is that you’re claiming this round of infrastructure borrowing is perfectly legal without voter approval while planning to put the next round of infrastructure borrowing on the 2016 ballot. Since elections are expensive, you’re either trying to cut corners this time or hoping that you’ve gotten away with no voter approval for the last time. Whichever it is, clearly you’re doing something wrong and the voters and taxpayers are the ones who’ll suffer for it. Bypassing the City Charter and violating the will of the people is no way to conduct their business, but unfortunately it is all too common.
In closing, we want to make it absolutely clear that SanDOG is willing to engage in whatever dialogue you believe would be beneficial in resolving our present disputes and avoiding future ones. We have tried on many past occasions to litigate, almost always to no avail; and because the city usually loses, your intransigence simply delays compliance with the law but forces the city to pay lots of money in legal fees for its own lawyers and SanDOG’s. SanDOG remains committed to seeing San Diego succeed and to working through our differences with you civilly, professionally, and in the best interests of everyone. If any of you would like to have such a conversation, you can reach us through our lawyer.
Richard Lawrence and Pedro Quiroz, Jr.
P.S. Mr. Harris, this letter is not directed at you. We wish you much luck in your role as the new District 2 representative and hope that you will avoid the mistakes that your new colleagues have been making.