continued In many observers' opinions, any probe of San Diego's pattern of under-the-table dealings must extend to superior court. Zubel has another case that the appellate court has twice sent back for retrial. Filing for his client Harvey Furgatch in 2000, Zubel challenged a 1999 deal in which within a month, the value of a parking lot zoomed from $14 million to $21 million -- the exact gap the city needed to complete its ballpark-financing package. The first superior-court judge threw it out, claiming that Zubel should have sued the city as well as the port district. The appeals court sent it back. A second judge threw it out, claiming Zubel should have also sued the state lands commission. The appeals court sent that one back, too, with specific instructions on what the next superior court judge has to do to handle the case equitably. It will be tried again in four months.
"Our local public officials are treating the business of government as if it were their private business," says Zubel. "You can't treat the public treasury like your own personal checkbook."
Scott Barnett, former head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, recalls that in 1998, as the city headed for a ballpark vote, he wanted something done about the structural, or realistic, deficit of $40 million a year. He suggested a spending freeze. But he was thumbed down: if spending were frozen, how could the voters be told that there was lots of money for a ballpark? "There was almost a conspiracy of deliberate ignorance between the manager and the city council. The council basically said, 'We don't want to know,' " says Barnett. To balance the books, the city sold assets, diverted money from sewer and water funds to the general fund, neglected infrastructure and maintenance of safety equipment, and escalated the borrowing of money from the pension system.
Some of this activity is still going on. Barnett is not convinced that Mayor Dick Murphy is in on the conspiracy of secrecy. "I think he is absolutely ignorant of how bad finances are. Which is worse? Being venal or ignorant? In his case, it's mostly ignorance."
And what is the ballpark costing? Barnett thinks annual tax revenues from district development come to only $5 million. Debt service is $18 million. Therefore, the ballpark is costing $13 million a year and will drain the city of $10 million a year in perpetuity, even if more hotels are built. Former councilmember Bruce Henderson thinks the annual ballpark cost could be above $30 million, considering opportunity cost, or where the money might have been spent advantageously.